Why We Need a Mission to Mars By Karen Auguston Field, Chief Editor — Design News, February 3, 2004 RELATED ARTICLES RESOURCE CENTER BY THIS AUTHOR Engineer of the Year Hall of Fame Engineer of the Year Marine Current Turbines Ready to Deploy SeaGen Tidal Turbine Providing Better Solutions for Packaging Machinery Motion for Packaging Mechatronic Actuators No related resources found. Control Freak Pink Slips or Union Cards? Big things are coming Time waits for no one Lost in place A product flush with features, but not for all Robot-ready cable carrier Combination Wiper View more articles by this author ADVERTISEMENT In January, President Bush stood up in front of the cameras at NASA and proposed an extensive U.S. space initiative that will include a manned mission to Mars. Some critics of the plan say that there are better uses for the billions of dollars the program is expected to cost, like paying down the deficit or creating more jobs or improving education. Others are more imaginative in their criticism, including sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, who says: “I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert, which is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach.” Still others say it’s a ploy to get the votes of all those unemployed aerospace engineers out in California in the upcoming presidential election this year. I agree. It’s expensive. It’s aggressive. Maybe even far-fetched. But consider this: A manned mission to Mars just might single-handedly salvage what’s left of the engineering profession here in the U.S., where interest in anything involving second-order differential equations has been on the wane since the mid-1980s. Yet in countries like China, Japan, and Russia, students continue to enter engineering school in droves. In 1961, I didn’t hear John Kennedy describe to the nation how we were going to put a man on the moon. My mother had already put me down for nap. But in 1969, I—along with my brother and sister and tens of thousands of kids across America—was glued to the family television out on the back porch, watching Neil Armstrong make one big step for man. What happened in space in that day in July 1969 captured the world’s attention. And it inspired tens of thousands of kids just like me—and many of you, I’m guessing—to set their own goals to do well in school, go on to study engineering, and then go to work for NASA. We didn’t all achieve that last part, but tens of thousands of us born before 1969 worked hard, got into engineering school, and earned our degrees. Our numbers increased every year between 1976 and 1985. Since then, the number of engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has declined steadily every year, with the exception of 1995, when there was a small up-tick. Meanwhile, lawyers and MBAs are multiplying like rabbits. Experts predict that there will be a huge shortage of engineers in the coming years as the same kids who were inspired by putting a man on the moon begin leaving the field to enjoy their retirement years in Florida. So just ask yourself this question: Without an aggressive goal like putting a man on Mars, just what exactly will be the inspiration for this generation of kids to pursue an education in engineering? My husband and I got into a debate recently over the pros and cons of eating rust flakes. I said that I couldn’t imagine anything good about ingesting something that could be scraped off the bottom of an ocean tanker, with the exception of barnacles. We once ordered a barnacle appetizer in Portugal. It was delicious. My husband, on the other hand, argued that in small doses rust is probably relatively harmless. And not only would the iron oxide potentially satisfy the NIH’s recommended daily intake for iron, he pointed out that as an added benefit you wouldn’t have the adverse effects associated with red meat, which is a good source of iron. We got onto this rather strange line of conversation because I noticed some rust-colored flecks floating in my ice water. While it may taste a little weird, I didn’t think we had a heavy metal problem in our drinking water here in Cambridge, Mass.
Our investigation quickly fingered the automatic ice dispenser in our Frigidaire Gallery Series refrigerator, where we observed an abundance of rust-colored shavings around the outlet for the dispenser. Closer inspection revealed corrosion in and around the metal cutting blades. Apparently, they are not of the rust-resistant steel variety or made out of titanium or other rust-free material. This area of the kitchen isn’t well lit, so for all we know it’s been going on for years. So the good news, I suppose, is that a little rust hasn’t actually killed us, proving out my husband’s theory. And it does give a whole new spin on the drink called a Rusty Nail! This premature failure stuff is getting old. My mother, for example, just replaced her 35+-year-old refrigerator. And that’s because she finally got tired of the avocado trim. I do not know the exact vintage of our refrigerator, but I am guessing it’s somewhere between six and eight years old. It and all the other “designer” appliances that came with the house when we bought it four years ago have stainless steel finishes, which I think came into vogue around that time. They may look hot, but they are proving to be junk. I know I am starting to sound like an old person, but they really don’t make stuff like they used to. Planned obsolescence sounds like more than just a conspiracy theory at this point. And, let’s face it, design engineers everywhere are increasingly under pressure to trade off quality and reliability for price, excessive gadgetry, and designer looks. At this point an ice pick is starting to sound like a really good options.Is product quality and reliability really going downhill, or am I just an unlucky cynic? Let me know about your worst (and best) experiences, and I will share them in this blog.