Bold, Monster, Engineering Successes

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anorlunda
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For many years, I viewed the Saturn V rocket project as the most bold, most wildly successful engineering project ever completed. Most impressive was the lack of tolerance for failure, lack of opportunity for trial and error, achievement of zero complete failures, and the very short timetable. Full disclosure: Some of those Saturn V engineers were my friends. I learned to know them in the years 1967-68 at G.E.'s Apollo Support Department, where I worked with them on a different project. Engineering aspects of the Saturn V project are documented in the book NASA Apollo Series: Stages to Saturn, A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles
by Roger E. Bilstein

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Today, I watched the 2010 documentary film, Azorian: The Raising of the K-129 (2010). I watched it on Amazon. The film focused on the engineering aspects of the Glomar Explorer and the raising the the submarine K-129 in the 1970s. IMO that was a stunning engineering achievement, comparable to the Saturn V. That project was also marked by the lack of tolerance for failure, lack of opportunity for trial and error, success in its one and only mission, and an extremely short timetable.
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Both of those projects were done using technology that seems ancient by today's standards. Yet today's engineers might find it very difficult to replicate those successes. Elon Musk is trying, but his actual future plans are still fuzzy. Elon Musk's methods are also very much trial and error, and incremental refinement following failures. That is very different than the constraints on those other three projects.

Next I think of a third project (still in our future) that IMO is comparable to Saturn V and Azorian. Comparable for the same reasons; the lack of tolerance for failure, lack of opportunity for trial and error, and the one-shot try for success. It is the Launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. I'm amazed what must be accomplished in a short time window which will begin at the t=0 moment of launch, all without human help, all done in a location inaccessible to astronauts on a repair mission. Some engineering aspects of that project are discussed in the video below.
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I don't mean to be parochial; choosing only American successes. Please add to this thread other engineering projects from any country that you think may be comparable to these three. But for the sake of some focus, let us limit candidate projects to the years 1900-2030.
 
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  • #2
.Scott
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Star Trek, the original series was produced from 1966 to 1969. The Enterprise had warp drive, transporters, directed-energy weapons, and shields. But even they did not have Gambit.
 
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symbolipoint
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Please add to this thread other engineering projects from any country that you think may be comparable to thes...
Rescuing the trapped miners in Bolivia, ~2010;
Fixing the undersea pipeline leak in Gulf of Mexico, not sure what year but some time between 2012 and 2016
 
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  • #4
phinds
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Fixing the undersea pipeline leak in Gulf of Mexico, not sure what year but some time between 2012 and 2016
Doesn't seem to me even remotely comparable to what @anorlunda is talking about. In fixing the pipeline they failed at one attempt after another until they finally found something that worked.
 
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anorlunda
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I would like to add one more criterion. Provide a link to documentation of your nomination so that the rest of us can read about it.
 
  • #7
hutchphd
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Elon Musk's methods are also very much trial and error, and incremental refinement following failures. That is very different than the constraints on those other three projects.
I agree about the Glomar explorer. It has never been obvious to me how much technology was developed (in secret) to support the US fleet of Ohio class subs. I'll bet there was plenty of $$$ to help. I remember reading one of the CIA cover stories in Popular Science Magazine as a kid.
From what I have read, the development techniques used by Elon Musk are much more similar to the techniques employed by Soviet program under Sergei Korolev . While the direct comparisons are difficult to make, one can argue that the Soviet techniques where much more cost effective, and I believe that is utility for SpaceX. Out of respect for the N-1 rocket I will not use the term "bang for the buck". Of course the final results speak for themselves but the degree to which the Soviets succeeded is a testament to their engineering prowess (and Korolev's Machiavellian cunning probably exceeded even von Braun's).
 
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.Scott
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Having prototypes to work with during development is not really "trial and error". It's just a way of getting early discovery on what the issues will be. Just because your prototypes will be 50 meters tall, doesn't mean you should try to avoid using them.
 
  • #9
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Can't wait to see what no one has seen before with LSST Vera Rubin Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope.

The LHC should be added to the list, will be interesting what the new system will produce.
"The discovery of the Higgs boson was only the first chapter of the LHC story. Indeed, the restart of the machine this year marks the beginning of a new adventure, as it will operate at almost double the energy of its first run. Thanks to the work that has been done during the Long Shutdown 1, the LHC will now be able to produce 13 TeV collisions (6.5 TeV per beam), which will allow physicists to further explore the nature of our Universe." https://home.cern/resources/faqs/facts-and-figures-about-lhc

Biomed ENGRing - National Human Genome project, The Brain-Machine Interface developments, AI, Fugaku...

Three Gorges Dam - largest power plant in the world (hydro), SCMaglev, some beautiful engineering creations.
 
  • #10
Twigg
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@JLT I think the LHC is amazing, but I don't think it fits the category of "bold engineering projects". Integrating new technology to the LHC takes lots of smarts and lots of time, but the time and error constraints are pretty lax compared to a moon rocket or the sub-lifting spyboat. New LHC developments can be tested freely on a non-insane timescale, and if an engineer makes a small mistake it won't immediately be covered in every major news outlet world wide.

For comparison, Hubble would've been on this list if they hadn't done goofed the mirrors. The repair mission was impressive, but they used all those resources to fix a perfectly avoidable problem. I understand that management/planning of projects on such a scale is extraordinarily difficult, but the low tolerance for error is what made the aforementioned projects so darn impressive.

I'll go ahead and nominate the Millau Viaduct. I just find it astounding that they built this monster bridge in just 3 years. I'm not an expert, so maybe this timescale isn't that impressive and I just don't know any better. But I'll compare it to the Ponte Morandi viaduct (famous for other reasons), which was built in 4 years (completed 1967), is 1/2 as long, and just over 1/4 as high as the Millau Viaduct. Of course, as we saw with the Ponte Morandi, it might be best to reserve judgement for another 50 years (although the responsibility partially falls on the engineers, iron workers, and politicians responsible for maintaining these bridges long after the initial construction).
 
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anorlunda
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I'll go ahead and nominate the Millau Viaduct.
Thanks. Your link led me to this 46 minute YouTube video about the construction issues and challenges. I'll watch the video later.

 
  • #12
hutchphd
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God help us: the Manhattan Project. Authorized 28 Dec 1942 with Trinity explosion 16 July 1945. My undergrad advisor was fresh out of grad school then and helped make it so....
 
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  • #13
anorlunda
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God help us: the Manhattan Project. Authorized 28 Dec 1942 with Trinity explosion 16 July 1945. My undergrad advisor was fresh out of grad school then and helped make it so....
Yup, a very good fit. It was dumb of me not to include it from the start. Adding to the urgency of getting it right, in 1945 we only had enough fissile material for 3 bombs, Trinity, Little Boy, and Fat Man. If one of those three had failed, Japan maybe would not have surrendered.
 
  • #14
Vanadium 50
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@Twigg, if you are going to move elements off the list for cost and schedule reasons, you need to drop JWST.

As originally proposed, it was $0.5B and ten years to build (and would have launched and completed its science mission by now). Since the awarding of the prime contract in 2002, the time to launch has more than doubled and the cost has increased by a factor of 4 or 5.
 
  • #15
Twigg
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@Vanadium 50 That's fair. I know next to nothing about the JWST or the history of space telescopes. Thanks for the info! And on second thought, I probably shouldn't be so harsh on the LHC, given that they have to navigate more bureaucracy than any of the other projects mentioned in this thread, being a highly international project.
 
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A long time ago, someone told me: "Engineering is the art of doing for a nickel what any moron can do for a dollar." It strikes me that the projects under discussion here tend toward the 'dollar' category.
 
  • #17
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@Dullard I like that quote, but I think it's important to distinguish between costs and savings. Take the giant bucketwheel excavators for example. The German mining company Rheinbraun AG decided to pay for the 13,500 ton Bagger 288 (picture attached) because with the Bagger's 5 operators they could move as much dirt as 40,000 workers. The pricetag on that steel behemoth must've been insane especially considering operating and maintenance costs, but the executives must've done the math and decided that costs of the excavator were less than wages for 40,000 workers. Sometimes the big and flashy solutions really are cost effective.
bagger-288-in-action_image_h664.jpg
 
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  • #18
anorlunda
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My admiration for the giant projects is not because of the cost or the utility. It is the presumption that big complex things are almost certainly doomed to failure in early tries.

Saturn V had zero failures. Project Azurian had just one attempt possible.

The James Webb Telescope has a prolonged and expensive history. But the instant it launches, a very long string of things within a short time must all work right for it to succeed. Conventional wisdom might place the odds for success at 1:100. But the JWT engineers must have reason for their confidence of success. Time will tell.
 
  • #19
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But the instant it launches, a very long string of things within a short time must all work right for it to succeed.
Yeah, but in the Hubble ST paragidm, there are second chance scenarios. (modulo there being no Space Shuttle anymore...)
 
  • #20
anorlunda
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Yeah, but in the Hubble ST paragidm, there are second chance scenarios. (modulo there being no Space Shuttle anymore...)
Exactly. I didn't include the Hubble ST but I did include the James Webb ST. They may be able to send software updates to it, but no visits from astronauts.
 
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@Dullard I like that quote, but I think it's important to distinguish between costs and savings. Take the giant bucketwheel excavators for example. The German mining company Rheinbraun AG decided to pay for the 13,500 ton Bagger 288 (picture attached) because with the Bagger's 5 operators they could move as much dirt as 40,000 workers. The pricetag on that steel behemoth must've been insane especially considering operating and maintenance costs, but the executives must've done the math and decided that costs of the excavator were less than wages for 40,000 workers. Sometimes the big and flashy solutions really are cost effective.
View attachment 284019
I was just coming on here to mention the Bagger 288. Built for fighting Godzillas and such. Why this has never featured in a giant monster movie I do not know!
 
  • #23
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Hopefully coming soon to a movie house near you: :wink:
1) Fusion reactor
2) Gamma ray laser
 
  • #24
Twigg
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If I see a fusion reactor in a movie theatre near me, I'm moving! Pronto! I barely trust them with a popcorn machine :DD
 
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