Monday, May 24, 2010

Military and Civilian Engineering: The X-37B and the Space Shuttle

The profession of engineering has deep roots in military culture and military organizations. Both in France and the U. S., the first engineering schools in the late 1700s and early 1800s were military academies, and the first people trained in what we would now call the profession of engineering were military servicemen educated in the technicalities of forts, armaments, and related matters. When such training proved to be useful in fields other than war, the first practitioners of non-military engineering were called "civil engineers" to distinguish them from the only other kind at the time. Although the military employs only a minority of engineers today, the story of the X-37B says a lot about the different ways a military and a civilian organization go about achieving similar goals.

The X-37B is a recently launched unmanned space vehicle that the U. S. Air Force has developed, apparently to maintain its ability to launch spy satellites now that the last scheduled Shuttle flight is taking place as I write this. Like the Shuttle, it is a reusable craft with vestigial wings whose design was based on the Shuttle when NASA asked Boeing to develop an earlier version, the X-37, back in 1999. During the last decade, according to Wikipedia, the NASA design served as the basis for the Air Force's X-37B, which was announced in 2006 and then cloaked mostly in secrecy. Unlike NASA, whose proceedings are open and publicized almost to a fault, the Air Force gives out only such information as suits its purposes. So for example, we have only an early artist's conception of what the X-37B really looks like. But when the launch of the first X-37B took place last month (April 22, to be exact), amateur satellite observers and others figured out pretty fast what was happening.

The Air Force has always had a claim on a certain number of Shuttle flights to deliver its most advanced spy satellites into orbit. Even now we do not have full data on the nature of these satellites, but there is enough indirect evidence to show that they produce images superior to anything you can find on Google Earth, for example, and can be reconfigured and steered to watch trouble spots in most parts of the world as needed. During the Cold War, these satellites played an essential role in arms-reduction verification and many other aspects of that conflict, and after the Soviet Union came apart the programs continued for obvious reasons, since having eyes in the sky better than anyone else's will always provide a strategic advantage in both war and peace.

As long as the Shuttle was in operation, it could be relied upon to deliver new spy satellites, but the hiatuses caused by the two major accidents (Challenger in 1986 and especially Columbia in 2003) plus the planned ending of the Shuttle program inspired the Air Force to find an alternative. The nice thing about a military organization is that it is largely unencumbered by democracy. Democracy, I am convinced, is the best way to conduct public affairs. But once a specific technical objective has been decided upon, a well-run military organization has a much better chance of delivering the goods on time and under budget than other types of organizations. So now at fairly low cost (in the hundreds of millions rather than many billion, apparently) and in about a decade (including the seven-year NASA development, or even less time if you consider only the Air Force version), we have a space vehicle that does one of the most important functions of the Shuttle. And by its very nature, nobody on board can ever get killed because nobody is on board to start with.

Of course, the X-37B has a limited range of tasks it can do. Compared to the Shuttle, it is a butter knife to the Shuttle's Swiss army knife—it can do only one thing, but it should do it pretty well. Advances in remotely piloted vehicles and robotics have allowed the Air Force to do without people on board, and while this may lead to situations that a person in space would come in handy for, you can still do a lot with robots nowadays, only perhaps slower. But during an X-37B flight, there is no time pressure to get a task done before the oxygen and food runs out and the humans have to be carted back safely to Earth. Things can just take as long as they take. So in some ways, operations with the X-37B should be more deliberate and therefore better planned and executed.

Does this mean I favor a military type of organization for all engineering works? To a large degree, that is what we already have. The large commercial firms that do engineering have mimicked military organization in more ways than you might think. An engineer at a large company may not have to salute his boss or do kitchen-police duty for getting to work late, but everyone in a company knows there is a strict chain of command that one violates at his or her peril.

Of course, there are problems with the military style of doing things as well. When input from a large number and variety of constituencies should be considered, as in a public work that affects lots of people, the military style does not function that well. This problem has played out in such situations as the deteriorated state of dikes and flood protection systems that was the nominal, but not total, responsibility of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans before Katrina struck. To be fair, the Corps had its hands tied with regard to much of that infrastructure, and things might have gone better if it had taken over complete control of all aspects of the system. But that was a political impossibility.

Nevertheless, when you have a specific, clear-cut job to be done, it looks like handing it over to the military arm can work pretty well. That assumes, of course, that the military either possesses or has access to the necessary technical expertise. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is still going on in the Gulf of Mexico has inspired calls to shove British Petroleum out of the way and put the military in charge. As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, the problem with this idea is that BP and their contractor Transocean have all the smarts in this case. But if the problems that BP and Transocean are having are organizational rather than technical, they might benefit from having the Marines run things for a while.

Sources: The Wikipedia article "Boeing X-37" supplied most of my data on the NASA X-37 and the Air Force X-37B.

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