The Next Big Thing
Posts about next generation technologies and their effect on business.

A journey through time and space

I stopped into the book store at O'Hare last night looking for something to occupy my mind during the wait in the terminal and the two hour flight back to DFW. Recently, I worked in Abu Dhabi and also visited Dubai, and I was amazed, inspired, awed (pick your own superlative) at the buildings being erected in the United Arab Emirates. The cover story of Science Illustrated was "Sky High: How We Build the World's Tallest Towers". The article is a pretty fascinating story of how technology has changed over the years to allow these monuments to human ingenuity and ambition to be built. The primary technological improvement is in the modeling of the building. In the past, buildings were extrapolations of what worked in previous years; then twenty years ago, mathematical models like finite element analysis became possible. This was because computing performance power was increasing while price was declining, but even as late as the 1990s, the computers were not powerful enough to do a full building. Robert Halvorson of the structural engineering firm Halvorson and Partners noted that "Today we can often carry out calculations for a complete model in just one day". The simulation technology used by the construction industry allows them to evaluate alternatives rapidly and accurately, something that would be useful in other business ventures as well.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, the space race was hot and heavy and I was often "sick" when there was a launch or recovery so that I could watch it on television (black and white). On page 23 of Science Illustrated, there was a half page article about Laika, the first dog in space. Apparently, the Soviets reported that Laika survived several days in orbit, but she actually perished about seven hours into the mission when the temperature control system failed. The Russians revealed the early death of Laika in 2002, and on April 11, 2008, commemorated this space pioneer through a monument. This got me to thinking about some of our space pioneers, especially after the tragic incident with the chimpanzee last week: "what ever happened to Ham?". Ham was a key player in evaluating man's ability to live and work in space, because they were able to replicate and measure tests performed on Earth in space, and determine that weightlessness only had a minor impact on Ham's responses. Also, it was the first test of the Mercury capsule, which would later take Scott Sheppard and John Glenn into space. Ham passed away at the age of 26 and is buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

What do animals in space have to do with IT technology? First, it is about adequately managing risk on a project, and building in the tests required to ensure the effective operation of the solution. Second, analyzing the test results and making the fixes required allowed the US space program to move forward, catch up to, and eventually surpass the Soviet program. There is a lot to be learned from the space programs on how to run major projects, some good lessons and some lessons on what could have been done better. Finally, it is about integrity; telling the truth may be painful, but eventually the truth will come out, and it will be more painful or embarrassing at this point.

Labels: Space race
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About the Author(s)
  • Steve Simske is an HP Fellow and Director in the Printing and Content Delivery Lab in Hewlett-Packard Labs, and is the Director and Chief Technologist for the HP Labs Security Printing and Imaging program.
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