Losing old knowledge

This is both an interesting, and really tragic, story of how NASA engineers are learning from museum piecies (via Slashdot). I definitely think it is imperative that today's engineers know how and why decisions were made in the past. Especially with something as monumental as flinging human beings almost 240,000 miles.

However, what is really distressing is that today's engineers have to learn at museums. There obviously wasn't enough documentation, recording, and continuation between generations of engineers for NASA to capture that tremendous knowledge and experience. Instead of learning from their mentors, or reading manuals, workbooks, and photographs, they must resort to figuring out what works by inspecting the actual devices themselves.

Learning by inspection can be a very good learning experience. You are forced to make connections and gain insights on your own. However, it is also very easy to miss what is important.
"Why did they use platinum wires but gold connectors?" (hypothetical question)
"What didn't work that we're not seeing here?"

The same thing is happening with today's nuclear missiles. The current missiles were designed to last 20-30 years. Yet they're still online, with testing equipment that is severly outdated. Retired engineers are brought back, sat in a room for days with recording equipment and asked to tell their stories. Today's engineers are now realizing that when they design something with an expected lifetime of 30 years, just imagine it may be 50-70 years before it's actually replaced.

In essence, the Apollo program must be redone. Granted they now have the relics of the past (including some lingering engineers), and new technology, but they're doing it with a more limited budget and less gusto from the general public.

I want us to go to the moon. It's the only place in human history that we have traveled to, returned, and never gone back. Lets try and learn from our mistakes and get this job done.

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Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.