Accent

What’s in an accent? It certainly is a point of discussion. However much we pride ourselves in championing diversity there’s prejudices that have been centuries in the making.

I believe, we all want to see inclusive and welcoming environment in every profession and occupation. I’m opposed to all forms of unfair discrimination especially those of class-based prejudices. In this country, a persons accent can so easily be associated with a region or city. Then all the baggage of history associated with that place can form snap judgements about that person.

It was a while ago but a case in point sticks in my mind. A space project that didn’t go as planned resulted in a probe crash landing on planet Mars. The Beagle 2 project[1] was ambitious however ill fated. The bubbling enthusiasm of the project leader Professor Colin Pillinger from the Open University was infectious. At the same time, it was impossible to miss his West Country accent. It didn’t impede his inspirational promotion of space exploration, but I do remember remarks made about his accent. They were not always complementary.

Now, you might say that was more than a decade ago. We’ve moved on. I don’t think so. The glorious West Country accent, and I include the city of Bristol in that mix, is still associated with a rural Arcadian dream of country life. This much cherished mythology continues to be promoted in English lifestyle magazines and every part of the broadcast media.

It’s a fantasy where educated, philanthropic and sophisticated citizens move from London to enlighten impoverished country folk. Their hope being to soak in the innocence of country ways but, at the same time, offer erudite advice to the backward locals.

If I have an accent it has all but gone. That said, it does broaden when I return to the West Country. There’s a whole series of words which don’t seen quite right said anywhere but in the rolling hills of Somerset and Dorset. Ways of saying things that I grew up with that are meaningless out of context.

Although the association of a rural accent often goes with an unfair characterisation that someone is not too bright, on the plus side it’s linked with friendliness, kindness and warmth. That sounds a bit like a description of a Hobbit. There’s an accidental proof that these prejudices are deeply ingrained in English literature.

I remember early in my career that too much retained from childhood was a barrier to getting a message cross. Slowly but effectively my accent became generic. There’s no doubt this had an upside when it came to technical presentations in front of a mixed audience. Even more important in front of an international audience. It shouldn’t matter but it does.

In a conversation about helicopter safety, a French colleague once lent over to say to me that he knew our Texan partner was speaking English, but he had no idea what he was saying. Is that a case for a standardisation of English – maybe?


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-led-beagle-2-lander-found-on-mars

Humans in Space

Smart people have strong views on human space flight. In my mind, human space flight isn’t a football for arguments over public verse private. How missions are funded is less important than the fact that they are funded. Space flight will always be a high-risk activity. Those risks will sometimes be borne by the public sector and sometimes by the private sector.

Saying that all we need is robotics in space is to overstate the case for robotics. No doubt, robotics will play a fundamental part in exploration. It’s one component in a bigger picture. Humans need to go to space. That’s a rather a didactic statement. It needs to be challenged. So, my answer has several parts, and here they are:

Firstly, it’s not that we have a choice, given the nature humans have demonstrated over the last million years. Discontent with staying in one place, we are constantly on the move. We’ve inhabited every part of the globe. Even the most inhospitable parts. It’s extremely unlikely we will counter that instinct to travel, to go, and to see for ourselves. First-hand.

Secondly, every robotic mission has limitations based on the design of the machines we send into space. A designer must use the knowledge of their time to anticipate what may be needed, often a decade from the first moment they sat at their computer. The adaptive capability of humans is unmatched. However, machines advance, it will be unmatched for tens of decades ahead.

Thirdly, our lives are full of stories of imaginary flights. From Leonardo da Vinci vivid creativity to the practical achievements of the Wright brothers. Imagination spurred on inventors to bring to life ways in which humans could take to the air. The same applies to space flight. Flash Gordan is a comic book character. We know that Star Trek is a fiction. The film Gravity stressed the dangers of space. None of this detracts from an imbedded predisposition we have for space-based adventures.

Fourthly, when faced with the new it’s not always clear what to do. However, if unprecedented situations arise, we humans rise to the occasion. The inventive capacity of people is unique. When the machinery around us fails we come up with answers. We work out a way to get over the problems. Being able to rapidly fix things matters in space[1].

Fifthly, our species is successful, in part, is because we face risks. It could be said that existence requires us to face risk, but we do it anyway. Our enjoyment of dangerous sports is one indicator. People train to face perils and are thrilled to overcoming challenging circumstances. Collectively we delight in their achievements. Why go to space? – Because it’s there[2].

It’s more than evident that from the perspective we have in the here and now, we can only see so far ahead. A few will see further. What seems obvious to a highly educated commentator on human space flight may be rendered null and void at a stoke come the next discovery.

NOTE 1: On the third point, I found a quote from Orville Wright. “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris. That seems to me to be impossible. What limits flight is the motor.” So, even with his inventiveness and imagination it only went so far. [Early Flight – From Balloons to Biplanes].

NOTE 2: On the fourth point, the experience of my early career working on ground test equipment for communications satellites comes into play. Extensive testing is needed on any space borne systems. As I remember it being said – we don’t make ladders that high.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo13.html

[2] Why climb a mountain? British climber George Mallory gave a famous response in a New York Times interview in 1923: “Because it’s there.”

Moon Mission

The universe is big, I mean really big, but our nearest neighbour is close by. Seeing our unique satellite orbit the Earth is as common an experience watching the weather. No need for a telescope.

The circumference of Earth (distance around Earth at the equator) is roughly 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles). The distance to the Moon is 10 times the circumference of the Earth, or roughly 400,000 kilometres (250,000 miles[1]). That sounds like a lot but compared with the dimensions of our solar system it’s nothing much.

The first humans walked on the Moon on 20th July 1969. I was 9-years old. I watched the event in our living room on a small black and white TV. Around the globe, hundreds of millions of people watched as Armstrong stepped out on the surface of the Moon for the first time[2]. For good or ill, humanity changed on that day.

A plan for returning humans to the Moon is underway[3]. NASA’s new lunar mission is ready for launch. Called “Artemis” a mission is on the launch pad. In ancient Greek mythology, Artemis was heavily identified with Selene, the Moon.

This project will work with industry and international partners, like the European Space Agency (ESA)[4] to send astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The European Service Module (ESM) will provide for future astronauts’ basic needs, such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, temperature control, power, and propulsion.

It’s a big day. Exploration is a part of human DNA. These are the next steps. I wish the project every success.

POST: Well, we get to use that well used phrase – Space is hard. “Space is hard.” But why? — Elizabeth A. Frank (elizabethafrank.com)


[1] 225,623 miles away when it’s at its closest. The Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle. When the Moon is furthest, it’s 252,088 miles away.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing

[3] https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/

[4] https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/ESA_Web_TV

It can happen

Theories are nice. Having a way of explaining an event or failure, or both is a nice comfort blanket. It can give us a way of trying to look ahead. The common notion that; if it has happened once, it can happen again, is part of our mental hard wiring. We store up memories and are constantly ordering and re-ordering them in our minds. Looking for patterns.

What cuts across is a simple factual recollection of an event. Examples can be illustrative of a theory. Also, they can stand alone as evidence that anyone of us can fall foul of the unthinkable. One of my favourite events, which has the ingredients of the unthinkable happened in the 1990s. It’s about exploration and the space industry. That said, a story on this theme could be written about any part of the aerospace world.

Safety assessments are scoped to consider about anything that’s not extremely improbable. Let’s be clear that’s an approach that consciously asks people to discount some events as absurd or never going to happen, just beyond what we would ever do. The lesson is that when considering how things go wrong it’s as well to be open minded.

Let’s go back to December 1998. A spacecraft called the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was intended to skim the upper atmosphere of the planet and return data to Earth. It had taken over 9 months to get to Mars. A journey like that one come with costs mounting in the tens of millions.

The spacecraft was about to go into orbit, it disappeared behind Mars but failed to re-emerge. Efforts to communicate with it were continued for a long-time but nothing came back. An investigation into the MCO’s loss concluded that it had crashed into the surface of the red planet. This was not the crux of the matter. Such projects have risks that can be unknown.

Investigation concluded that the MCO had been obliterated[1]. It was off course by 60 miles, so it plunged to destruction rather than entering orbit around Mars.

Now, I said that anyone of us can fall foul of the unthinkable. In this situation, that’s what happened. The managing organisation for spacecraft thruster data had been using imperial units. Thruster performance data was in “English” units. NASA’s navigation team had assumed the units used were metric. The trajectory modelers assumed the data was provided in metric units as per their requirements. Thus, the difference between miles and kilometres sealed the fate of the MCO.

Discovering that cause of the loss must have been excruciatingly embarrassing. One of the published recommendations; take steps to improve communication, seems modest. In addition to taking on-board all the investigations findings, my take on this event is two-fold.

  1. Think the unthinkable. Not all the time, but every so often it pays dividends and
  2. Question assumptions. Even the most cherished simple assumptions can be wrong.

These two are universally applicable.


[1] https://llis.nasa.gov/llis_lib/pdf/1009464main1_0641-mr.pdf

Avionics

Segmenting, categorising, and naming technical subjects has a long history. However, it’s not often there’s a back story to say what’s in each name. Numerous definitions exist. These are quite often an afterthought. Naming that evolves rather than can be traced to a single author.

The subject on my mind is Avionics. It’s a ubiquitous term in aircraft engineering. In fact, it’s applied much more widely than that because administrators, pilots and air traffic controllers all use it. So, let’s look at the history, etymology and usage of the word.

The word seems obvious, as to not need a definition. Bring the world of aviation and electronics together and there it is – Avionics. However, Avionics often extends beyond the world of aviation and into space. So, it may be better to say, bring the world of aeronautics and astronautics and electronics together and there it is – Avionics.

Notice that it’s electronics and not electrics that forms the definition. A loose distinction between the two might be to say that, in terms of electric current, electronics is anything below an ampere[1] and electrics is that above an ampere.

Marconi was the first to experiment with airborne radio. It was even available to pilots in the First World War. However, spark-gap radio was unloved, heavy, and awkward.

The name Avionics started being used in the 1940s. VHF radio communication between aircraft and ground stations was vital to an aircrafts’ operation. The fabrication of radio valves in high volumes and at low costs led to the use of numerous radio technologies: communications, navigation, RADAR and Radio Altimeters to name a few.

The science and technology of electronics, and the development of electronic devices has advanced faster than that of aircraft design and manufacture. Avionics engineering has been divided into numerous sub-fields as a result.

Where once an aircraft could complete safe flight and landing with a complement of defective avionic equipment that is no longer the case. It’s quite the reverse, as the current generation of both military and civil aircraft are highly depended upon the correct functioning of their avionic systems.

Often the more complex an aircraft and its operation becomes, the more complicated the avionic systems become. Aircraft flight-control systems can be of great sophistication. By contrast a VHF radio hasn’t changed much, in its basic function, for decades.

Although avionics is a common term, it doesn’t often find its way into legislation or everyday usage. There’re certainly great swathes of the population for which the word means nothing. It’s an unusual day if the six-o’clock news has a reference to this technical word. 


[1] https://www.npl.co.uk/si-units/ampere

Mars flight

I was wondering – is there air on planet Mars? It’s one thing to say is there life on Mars? We’ve been asking that big question of generations. But can we use the word “air”? There’s a thin atmosphere on Mars but can you call it air? The rover that’s there will be listening for sounds in what is 95% carbon dioxide. That kind of atmosphere on Earth would be our worst nightmare.

Let’s look at the definition of that everyday word – air.  Air is the mixture of gases which forms the Earth’s atmosphere and which we breathe.  No way could we breath on Mars.  That gas we depend on, oxygen is down to about 0.1%. Taking that basic definition then Mars does not have “air” in the common sense.

I’m going down this rabbit hole because of the references to Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter that is being prepared for flight. This innovative flying machine has been landed on Mars and is being referred to as a helicopter.  Now, a Helicopter is a heavier-than-air aircraft supported in flight chiefly by the reactions of the air on one or more power-driven rotors on substantially vertical axes[1].

Oh dear, there’s that reference to the air as per planet Earth.  I may be being an aviation pendant, but this could be the time to revisit the definition of helicopter and change the word “air” to “atmosphere”. Afterall, if there’s a gas of sufficent density then flight is possible with the right equipment.

Ingenuity could also be known as a Rotorcraft.  It undeniably has two rotors, so it must be a craft supported in flight chiefly by the reactions of an atmosphere. Since we are entering a new era of aviation as a human built extra-terrestrial vehicle makes a controlled flight for the first time, revisiting definition could be appropriate. 

Then Airworthiness is then better expressed as Flightworthiness. Maybe, Aircraft ought to be Flightcraft. There’s a history here given that a craft that hovers is called a Hovercraft. Which is more important? What it does or what it does it in?

Whatever the nuisances of these internationally used definitions in English, the wonder of this fantastic achievement is not lost on me.  This moment only happens once. The first time the immense challenges of controlled flight on another planet are overcome we are in a new era of aviation. 

Flying in a hostile cold, thin atmosphere will be amazing. Take-off and landing several times will be astonishing.  What magnificent engineering design. Rotors spining at 2400 rpm. This robotic rotorcraft will test the feasility of flying on another world. Imagine what that will open up. From me, all the best good fortune to the team who made this possible. Lift-off and come down in one piece. Looking foward to seeing the pictures.


[1] Annex 8 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation