Category Archives: Half Wit

Oddities, humor, et cetera. Often deals with the strange side of engineering.

Requirements gone wild

And now for something completely different.

A colleague and I were trying to explain the basics of rocket propulsion to someone.  The subject of putting nuclear bombs behind a thick plate to produce thrust came up.  (We didn’t say “Project Orion“. But if you know what that is, that is effectively how the discussion went.)

When we discussed exploding the bomb very close to the plate, we were asked what sort of material would be used that wouldn’t be slowly destroyed in the process.  The conversation then went…

“Unobtainium.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s what you can’t obtain!”

At this point, we were berated for being scientists and engineers with no creativity.  Now, of course, we laughed it off.  I later pointed that there is a nice video that describes the predicament that engineers get thrown into with impossible requirements.  Engineers here will understand.

Sometimes, the demands of rocket science feel a little bit like this. :-)

As for lacking creativity, I thought about going to multi-dimensional space and red-shifting the color.  The part that really gave me grief was the kitten.

You’re an astro-what??

First, I’m going to apologize in advance to professional astrodynamicists.  I survived a few months on the job, but never had to lay in a course to the nearest star base. :-)

If you look in Wikipedia, astrodynamics applies Newtonian mechanics to man-made objects in space.  “It is a subfield of celestial mechanics”; but looking at the list of subcategories and pages, it becomes clear that astrodynamics covers a lot of ground.  [Wikipedia entry]

The Conversation

If I say I am a wannabe astrodynamicist or that I studied astrodynamics in school, people often don’t know what I’m talking about.  In my daydreams, the conversation and answer do not come easy.

Q: What do you do?
A: I’m an astrodynamicist … uh, an orbital mechanic.
Q: So you… what? Go out and fix satellites in orbit?
A: Trajectories… I fix trajectories.
Q: (ponders this) Like a space navigator on a starship?
A: (ponders that) Yeah, like a space navigator figuring the route to a planet or asteroid.  … Or to a derelict spacecraft.
Q: (more pondering) So you work for a salvage company in space?
A: (smiles)  I could.  Spacecraft can have a lot of expensive parts.  (thinks about this)  And some of them are secret.
Q: So you work for a salvage company and a spy agency?
A: Actually, I work with people designing launch vehicles.
Q: (lightbulb) Oh! You’re a rocket scientist.
A: (decides not to argue) That’s close enough.

I’ll probably never have that conversation, except in my dreams.

As for the rocket scientist part…

One friend tells me that the cutting edge of rocket science is designing and building very small cryogenic turbopumps.  In other words, it’s like being a plumber.

When a tell another friend that I am a generalist in a variety of aerospace technologies, he insists that I am a rocket scientist.  I decided not to argue.

And that’s how this blog got its name. :-)