I grew in the 1960s and 1970s during the glory days of the space race, and became a newly-minted engineer in the 1980s when the Space Shuttle first flew. While the influences of nature vs nurture are still up for debate, there’s little question that even if I was born with “nerd genes”, watching the most incredible engineering feat in modern history unfold during my childhood had a profound effect on my life choices moving forward. As a systems engineer who leads the development of sophisticated and life-critical systems, I’ve often thought back to those days: “How the heck did they develop those incredible machines so quickly?”
Well, now I know a lot more about how they did it, right from the horses’ mouths, thanks to a marvelous video course from MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative. A decade ago, in the Fall of 2005, MIT’s course 16.885J on Aircraft Systems Engineering brought together a who’s who of luminaries from the Apollo and Space Shuttle days to discuss the systems engineering behind the now-retired Space Shuttle.
It’s true that the Shuttle didn’t fully meet its goals of providing an inexpensive ride into low-Earth orbit, and low-Earth orbit isn’t as sexy as going to the Moon, But the Shuttle remains, to my mind, the most complex and mind-blowing example of systems engineering ever. It could carry seven people and a payload the size of a school bus into space. It could be controlled in a vacuum at zero-G, in thick sea-level air at one-G, and in all conditions experienced in moving from one of those regimes to the other. And it was all designed, developed and built using 1970s technology.
The course is led by Profs. Jeffrey Hoffman and Aaron Cohen (no relation to me that I’m aware of). Hoffman is an astrophysicist and MIT professor who has an intimate understanding of the Space Shuttle, thanks to a prior gig with NASA: he flew five space shuttle missions, with multiple space walks including aiding in the repair of the Hubble telescope (shown below).
Aaron Cohen, who sadly passed away in 2010, is one of my personal engineering heroes. He joined NASA in 1962 as a junior engineer; by the time we flew to the Moon seven years later, Cohen was simultaneously Deputy Chief of the Apollo systems engineering group and the Chief of its Project Engineering group. As the Apollo program wound down, he was appointed the head of NASA’s Space Shuttle Orbiter Project Office, where he led the design, development, production, and test flights of the Shuttle Orbiter.
No ordinary professors, and no ordinary course!
And if these stars of space travel weren’t enough… they’re only the start. Cohen and Hoffman set the stage in the first few lectures by laying out the Shuttle’s history and overall architecture, but the rest of the course consists primarily of guest lectures by a pantheon of amazing technologists who led the development of various Shuttle systems and operations – engines, structure, aerodynamics, thermal protection (those amazing-but-naughty tiles), landing gear, mission control, launch operations, accident investigations… a total of 22 two-hour lectures.
The lectures themselves aren’t too technical, although I suspect it helps to have a good formal background in engineering or science. Terms like delta v and impulse get thrown around pretty regularly. But the real wonder comes from the stories. How did the Shuttle come to be shaped and configured the way it is? Why did the thermal tiles fall off so easily? How does one manage such a large, ultra-cutting-edge project? While I’m sure that the answers to most of these types of questions were ultimately reduced to math, CAD, and models, in this course they are mainly related as stories. Stories about what happens when human beings, budgets and technology intersect. Stories both fascinating and instructive to folks interested in systems engineering.
And lots of great quotes. My favorite so far, from Aaron Cohen, helps me feel better about my difficulty in succinctly defining systems engineering:
“When we were in Apollo we sat around the table for many days and months trying to figure out how you define systems engineering. We didn’t even know what systems engineering was. In fact, today, I’m not sure you’ll get a clear definition of what it is.”
The video part of the videos are not much to look at – they just focus in tightly on the head and upper body of the lecturers, rarely even zooming or panning to show lecture material presented on screen or whiteboard. But the audio is a fantastic listen that I’ve been taking in during my work commute, I’m about two-thirds in at this point. MP3s are available separately from video at archive.org (you’ll need to download both the 24 and 32 kbps files to get the full set). Strangely, some of the lectures are recorded at such a low volume that I couldn’t hear them with my volume control maxed out, so I ran them through a GoldWave batch job to fix ’em – I’ve made the complete volume-normalized set available for download here.
I cannot recommend this course highly enough for anyone interested in systems engineering, space technology and/or space history.