Rebuild America with old engineers

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This is the second of a three-part series on building America. Click Here for part 1

The examples of veteran Russian space engineer Alexei Vasiliev and his Gagarinskaya Manned Launch Complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia have major lessons for 21st century America and its industrial future: Above all, they help explain the miracle of fracking technology and the achievements of George P. Mitchell, who developed it.

George P. Mitchell, the father of fracking died at 94.
George P. Mitchell, the father of fracking died at 94.

The lives of Vasiliev and Mitchell, who finally died on July 26 at the excellent age of 94, both run counter to American experience and practice in its civilian and military space programs over the past 30 years — and against the practice of U.S. industrial defense contractors on other military heavy engineering programs for aircraft, ships and vehicles, too.

Contrary to much popular belief and fashion, age and experience are essential to the prolonged successful operation and maintenance of any complex engineering system. Every engine, wiring system or complex mechanism to transform or transmit energy has its own peculiarities, tolerances and malfunctions, and it takes accumulated experience to acquire the necessary knowledge and data to keep it operating at maximum efficiency.

When there is rapid turnover of staff, when mechanics and engineers are encouraged to rotate out of their jobs after only a couple of years, and when it is widely regarded as career suicide to stay at the same responsible, but not prestigious, position like Vasiliev for more than five years, let alone more than 30, then that kind of institutional experience will not be preserved.


Challenger explodes 74 seconds after take off in  1986,
Challenger explodes 74 seconds after take off in 1986.. (Public Domain)

Later generations of engineers will lack the familiarity with the complex systems they operate that their predecessors had. The breakdown of communications between older, subordinate engineers who worked on the Morton Thiokol boosters for the space shuttle Challenger and the younger generation of managers who held power over them but did not heed their warnings before the January 1986 disaster was a classic case in point.

The concept of the central importance of accumulating experience with advancing age to make technology work runs counter to many of the most deeply held myths in American society. Americans worship youth, innovation and dynamism. They do not associate technological breakthroughs with advancing age, but with youth. Yet Wernher von Braun was in his 50s when he created the Saturn V rocket (see feature photo above) that sent American astronauts to the moon.

And Sir Sidney Camm, the creator of the legendary Hurricane fighter that played the key role in winning the 1940 Battle of Britain, was in is 60s when he designed the revolutionary P 1154 Harrier STOVL or jump-jet that remained a mainstay of the U.S. Marine Corps for more than a quarter century.

Hurricane Mk1, RAF serial R4118, Squadron code UP-W, at the PFA Flying for Fun Rally at Kemble Airfield, Gloucestershire, England. This aircraft flew 49 combat sorties, destroyed 3 enemy aircraft and damaged 2 others. It carries its original markings. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone on August 20th 2006 and released to the public domain.
Hurricane Mk1, RAF serial R4118, Squadron code UP-W, at the PFA Flying for Fun Rally at Kemble Airfield, Gloucestershire, England. This aircraft flew 49 combat sorties, destroyed three enemy aircraft and damaged 2 others. t carries its original markings. (Wikipedia Commons)

Vasiliev’s example shows how it is not just obvious geniuses who are the exception to the rule that high-tech expertise can only reside among the young. For successful military technology and design do not depend solely, or even mainly, on revolutionary new miracles breakthroughs: To make machines work, the more hands-on experience you can accumulate in working with them, the better. And in war, it is crucially important to make a lot of machines work as long as they possibly can. To achieve all that, there is no substitute for experience. And it is the kind of experience that usually takes decades to acquire.

Mitchell’s life and achievements bear this out in the most spectacular way. Here was an engineering genius whose greatest contribution to his industry and his nation came when he was in his mid-80s! And the only reason it was possible was that he was already a mega-Texas millionaire who owned his own company. Therefore he could not be fired, sneered at as an old fool behind his back, politely patted on the head and then totally ignored.

Now, because of Mitchell, the United States has moved in less than decade from being the greatest net energy consumer on earth to the greatest producer, and it is set to soon become the greatest exporter.

The George P. Mitchell story throws the entire corporate, educational and technological strategy of the U.S. government, the nation’s business schools and most of all the hilariously ignorant pretentious geniuses of the op-ed pages intot he waste disposal. What those lessons are, I’ll point out in Part Three.

Next: Why George P. Mitchell had to be in his eighties to make fracking work

Please read the first part of the series here.