When James Oberg [right] suggested to IEEE Spectrum an article about how a knotty telecommunications problem was solved, we were interested for two reasons. First, the circumstances were unusual: they centered on a spectacular plunge by a probe known as Huygens into the soupy atmosphere of a moon 1.5 billion kilometers away.

Spectrum has always been interested in space exploration. Apart from its intrinsic fascination for many readers, it pushes technology's limits. And even when new technologies are not developed, operating spacecraft requires engineers to test the boundaries of their expertise, insight, and creativity. Second, we knew that Spectrum could tell the story best. When it was originally revealed that a communications screw-up threatened Huygens's mission, most reports glossed over the nature of the problem. Only by explaining what the snafu really was, how it snuck in, and how it was discovered and corrected, can useful lessons be drawn. By working with Oberg, we knew we could tell that story in a compelling way: he is a regular contributor to Spectrum and has spent decades working in and reporting on the space industry.

As the research for this article progressed, we discovered another reason to print it: the tale of an unsung hero, Boris Smeds. Without him, Huygens's mission would have continued in ignorance of the lurking communications problem—right up until disaster. Smeds's commitment to uncompromising engineering led him to battle bureaucracy and develop the tough test that unmasked the flaw. His engineering instinct and ability to improvise rooted out not just the flaw's existence, but its proximate cause. Smeds's example of what it means to be a great engineer is the most compelling lesson of all.

The Conversation (0)

The Great Ventilator Rush

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, engineers launched extraordinary crash programs that produced scores of ventilator designs. What will happen to them now?

14 min read
Not Rocket Science: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built a working ventilator prototype in a 37-day period spanning the months of March and April 2020.
Photo: JPL-Caltech/NASA

The projections were horrifying. Experts were forecasting upwards of 100 million people in the United States infected with the novel coronavirus, with 2 percent needing intensive care, and half of those requiring the use of medical ventilators.

In early March, it seemed as if the United States might need a million ventilators to cope with COVID-19—six times as many as hospitals had at the time. The federal government launched a crash purchasing program for 200,000 of the complex devices, but they would take months to arrive and cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less