I have an embarrassing confession to make: We electronics engineers have it much easier than those in other engineering disciplines. Thanks to Moore's Law (actually, it should be called Moore's Conjecture), we have benefited from incredible advances in our basic components and tools over the last 50 years. Those advances, in turn, have spurred demands for ever more amazing and capable end products, which squeeze every bit of performance from the available hardware and software. Overall, the technical supply-and-demand embrace has been a beneficial, symbiotic relationship.
Other engineering fields have not had the benefit of an equivalent to Moore's Law. That became clear to me while reading an article on the Google Lunar X Prize in the June issue of Popular Mechanics. Similar in concept to the $10 million Ansari X Prize for sub-orbital flight (won in 2004), the $30 million Lunar X award will go to the first privately funded group to land a mobile, unmanned rover on the lunar surface (one way; no return trip required). It's an ambitious goal, but one that many engineering experts believe is reasonable.
One theme stood out plain and simple in the article. On one side, any electronics in a Lunar X Prize contender's guidance, control, telemetry or communications is far more powerful, lighter and better in every way than the ones that took astronauts to the moon and back 40 years ago. Materials science has also advanced, so that lighter, stronger structures are possible. But those advances are modest, especially when compared with the orders-of-magnitude changes in electronics.
But the rocketry effort is largely unchanged. It's all about beating Newton's Laws of physics.
It's still an environment where F = ma, it takes serious thrust to loft the vehicle, every pound of payload takes many pounds of booster, and escape velocity from Earth's gravity is still 11.2 km/second (about 25,000 miles/hour).
In other words, for the nonelectronic part of the mission, it's largely "same old, same old": lots of thrust; big rocket motors; large valves; larger fuel tanks; cryogenic and solid fuels; enormous dynamic and static pressures, velocities and loads; highly explosive materials and forces; and a major plumbing experience.
Electronics engineers should feel proud, grateful and maybe even a little bit guilty about how much we have been able to accomplish in developing and using semiconductor technologies and devices. But we certainly shouldn't feel smug.
After all, those rocket engineers--and mechanical, civil, biomedical and other engineers--are up against some fundamental laws of physics and nature that deal with motion, mass and gravity, and those won't scale down nicely.
Be grateful, be proud, but don't be cocky. Have some respect and compassion for those other engineers. They have challenges that can't be overcome by process shrinks.
Bill Schweber (bschweber@ techinsights.com) is site editor of Planet Analog.