Alan

Jul 24, 2017

6 min read

The Ghosts that Haunt Engineering Visionaries

In 2003, I had just started in an engineering program. The pivotal technical core classes were still several semesters in the future, but I wasted no time enrolling in a single-credit (1/3rd to 1/4th of full credit) intro class, ENG 101. This stuck with me, and not all in a good way.

I still remember 3 specific case-studies the class presented like it it was yesterday because they have simmered, festered, rotted in my mind.

  • The Gibraltar Bridge
  • The Freedom Ship
  • Tokyo Millennium Tower

The presentation came in the form of questions — what are the engineering considerations of these? What are your thoughts about the projects? How would the finances work? What are their changes of success?

My professor had a certain set of objectives in mind when he started on this exercise. First and foremost, to motivate this new generation of engineers. Secondly, only after he had their attention, spark some semblance of discussion and intellectual development. The lessons we actually took from the exercise were all slowly realized in hindsight, and had themes more like “get used to failure”, “don’t trust any plans” and “dream realistically”.

Obviously, these 3 case studies have not aged well. Even their web presence has been rapidly aging. You can still dive in somewhat:

It’s hard to even know what to reference for the Gibraltar Bridge, since the proposals were constantly shifting.

Of all of these, the Freedom Ship was hands-down the most painful to observe. I would sometimes, occasionally, dig up news on it, and often the people involved would be engaged in a futile effort to defend the idea. The saddest part is the people who actually spent a major fraction of their career on it.

Didn’t Need the Future to Tell you That

Let’s be direct — it should have been obvious to all of us at the time that all of these projects were doomed to be non-starters. That should have been obvious to those in the class in discussions about them. It should have been obvious to all others reading news stories about these things at the time. It should have been obvious to any student writing a paper about one of them.

Hindsight has shown that, not only were all of these ideas doomed, but the discussions about them happened at almost the historical peak of interest about them. This isn’t even speculative anymore, we have actual search history data to validate the instinct.

So why did the examples seem like good ideas? I feel qualified to answer this, because I was the star-stuck aspiring engineer in the classroom who felt a sense of something you might call “belief” in the aspirational boldness of them. Such examples play on a certain natural emotion, and there is good reason for this emotion to exist.

The problem of these feats of aspirational engineering is that they are rooted in subcategories of engineering that fail to capture the public imagination any more. The sense of grandeur can only be a part of the justification for a megaproject while its constituent technologies are still culturally fresh and, thus, feel forward-looking. Also add to this the fact that megaprojects, due to whatever societal and institutional constraints we have imposed on ourselves, have become increasingly more and more difficult to conduct on time and on budget. A megaproject that starts out with a budget and timeframe orders of magnitude beyond what the existing market is willing to tolerate… diverges into pure fantasy.

We must seriously ask ourselves how we can balance the necessary cynicism with the need to discuss things beyond the horizon. Forums for that discussion are necessary and need limited judgement-free zones, which is why I have been very enthused at ideas efforts like:

Efforts like The Tall Tower show that it’s possible to engage in a technical discussion that is of similar value as other soon-to-be-failed ideas, even if the basic premise is entirely fictional. It is somewhat of an exercise in tech level, stretching the bounds of what could be possible if we were truly devoted to the idea.

However, believing that there’s nothing of great value to be found, no meaningful undiscovered information about the future, is defeatist and just plain wrong.

The Right Kind of Idea

The best kind of idea is one that actually can be built, but still sounds like it is impossible. Even more important, the challenges are components that have dependencies that other parallel technologies will open up.

We have no shortage of examples in history of such ideas, and many major technological shifts were precipitated by those ideas. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky stands out as a fantastic example, where many of the technologies used to get to the moon in 1969 were first described in a much under-appreciated book published in 1903. These were not abstract terms either.

Many ideas churning out today do follow this pattern, and we should respect that. Even more importantly, we should try extremely hard to distinguish the workable ideas from the fantasy. As much as I hate the Hyperloop, it does follow the pattern — sounds ridiculous, but has sound physics and at least an articulable business case behind it.

Can Case Studies be Any Good?

I argue, yes. We need to be able to look at Mars One and realize “this will never happen”, but we also need to be able to do this for all the right reasons. At least, I think I can articulate the problem with that succinctly: the maximum revenue stream from their funding model was woefully insufficient for the costs of operation. Nonetheless, many other schemes for colonization of Mars out there are, in fact, viable.

Like many of my posts, this comes back to the space elevator.

The idea of a stationary space elevator off the Earth has every component of a flawed engineering proposal in the book. Imaginary technologies, insufficient throughput, a bootstrapping problem, and more. Such a space elevator will never be built, regardless of technology level. I go even further, to argue that almost all other more conservative space tethers will never be used in large quantities for moving material. This is because of another fundamental flaw of hypothesizing engineering ideas — better alternatives exist.

Yet, the greatest tragedy of bad proposals such as these in my opinion is how they drown other other good ideas, which may very well be the future.

In particular, catching and tossing (space guns) start out looking ridiculous, but increasingly look less-so the more attention is paid to them. If I could make one type of bet regarding launch-assist tech, I would wager on advancement of precision over use of super-sizing components.

Indeed, writing about possible future orbital catcher systems is possibly the last major goal that I have for this blog. The potential architectures they allow are just too good to be ignored in terms of investment, efficiency, throughput, and technology pathway. Surrounding technologies are almost certain to improve, and many other parallel technologies stand to substantially strengthen their business case.