Marathon Engineering

I was watching the live web feed from NASA on the Messenger satellite achieving orbit of Mercury when I was struck by how engineers (and scientists) actually are versus how we are perceived by the public. The host of the webcast was in front of a live audience and the camera would periodically flip to a feed of the Command center which was a room with some large flat screens but mostly filled with some office chairs, desks, and a bunch of casually dressed engineers. A room most of us engineers can relate to – sort of our natural habitat.

The engineers in that room were calmly doing their job even though they were about to fond out if their twelve years of hard work was for nought or not. When the Messenger was in the middle of it’s burn and it appeared that orbit would be acheived, the host remarked – sarcastically – how excited everybody in the Command center was. That got a good laugh from the audience as they could see that little had changed in that room. The professionals were still going about their duties as before.

You see, the audience was there for that historic moment and were excited with that thought. They were seeing the last steps of a race and had little knowledge that it had been – like most big engineering efforts – a marathon, not a 100 meter dash.  And engineers are built for mental marathons. In my area, shipbuilding, you can spend an entire career on just one project. And that takes a great deal of effort and patience.

And, to the amusement of the audience, this doesn’t equate to great emotional displays from the runners. Yes, there were handshakes and a few pats on the back, but that was about it. And that’s fine for us engineers and scientists, but it doesn’t fo a whole lot for our public appearance as somewhat cold or boring nerds. Those people in the Command center were very pleased and proud of their successful work, but they were also just plain tired. I just don’t think the general public gets that.



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