A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

May 2007

Conversation with a Rocket Scientist

I once knew a flight instructor who was always impatient with his students. Including me. When something didn’t sink in quickly enough, he’d say, “It’s not rocket science!” So we all thought it must be quite simple, and we must be really slow. That instructor taught me everything he knew, and I still didn’t know anything.  

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the principals of flight, how to control an airplane, plan a cross country trip, change the oil, or clean the bugs off the leading edges. Most pilots don’t need to be rocket scientists. But rocket scientists do exist out there. Men and women who understand the physics, engineering, mathematics, geometry, calculus, aerodynamics, even the human element of the science.   Not the kind of stuff we learn in the private and commercial pilot license training.  

I had the privilege to meet and talk to a real rocket scientist once. He was retired, in his mid 80’s, and a patient of mine in an ambulance one day, back when I worked as a paramedic. It wasn’t a particularly urgent call, but he was sick with something serious enough to need our service. On the way to the hospital, I asked him what he did before he retired. He told me he’d worked with NASA in the 1960’s, and had been on the Apollo team that put Neil Armstrong on the moon. The Soviets had already put a man into orbit, Uri Gagarin in 1961. The race for the moon was on. A 10 year contest which would eventually cost 40-billion dollars, and there were no guarantees. I commented that he must be a real rocket scientist. He admitted I could call him that.

The conversation carried on. “It would probably be a lot easier to get to the moon today,” I said.

No, in fact I doubt we could do it today if it had never been done before,” he replied.

What?!  With the way technology has advanced since the ‘60’s it seems to me it could be done quite easily?”

He was philosophical. “The problem isn’t with the science. It’s all about attitudes. People don’t think the way they did in the ‘60’s. They’re not as free-wheeling. There’s no spirit of adventure and excitement on the scale it was back then. People are scared. They’re afraid of things like making costly mistakes, afraid of liability, lawyers, juries, insurance, government policies, discrimination, compensations and hungry news media.”

He went on to explain. “People are scared to try anything new today. Science could build anything better, but there would be growing pains too costly and painful to survive. Technology exists for example, to build a robots that would totally care for a baby. They could do every unpleasant job the mother faces, and give her a rest when she needs one. But if anything ever went wrong, where would that robot builder be? In court. That’s where!”

Most of the cost involved in building new airplanes, engines and other components is in the liability, not the research and development. Not in the science. The lawyers love it. This is a real mess we’re in today. And it all has it’s basis in the modern attitude that no one is responsible for his own screw ups, his own problems. The fault always lies somewhere else.”

Of course he was right. We see advances in technology, transportation, in fact in about any area we care to look. The world is definitely not standing still. But if you’re old enough to have been around in the 1960’s, you’ll agree that our free-wheeling spirit of adventure, eagerness to try something new and to take responsibility, just isn’t there anymore. Think of where we’d be today if lawyers had preceded the Wright brothers.  John F. Kennedy had that spirit. He risked a lot more than the humiliation of failure. But the U.S. President was a motivator who could think and act in a fashion bold enough to take the nation on a journey the likes of which the world had never known. Put a man on the moon.

The retired scientist with me in the ambulance had some enlightening things to say. I came away from the hospital that day thinking how he’d made so much sense of it all. And the truth of the matter is, this is not rocket science. It just took a rocket scientist to point it out.

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