Bob Parkinson: conservative space design

Rocket scientist Bob Parkinson discusses how space flight is actually a very conservative process.

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Yeah, I had a boss at one point who made the remark that, ‘If you’re designing cars and you don’t get something quite right, you have another go next year. If you design aeroplanes, you maybe get one chance in a lifetime [laughs] so it had better be right first time.’ And the same thing’s true with space. That you build something and quite often if it doesn’t work, you’re not sure why it doesn’t work, and you’ve just dumped half a billion Euros into the sky or into the Atlantic. So it’s a major event. So from that point of view there is a strong pressure to be conservative as well as to put a lot of effort into proving things on the ground before you fly. On the other hand, the, what you’re being asked to do doesn’t allow you to do that. You can use technology or you can use ways of doing, or use ideas, if you like. You can be clever with established technology. So quite a lot of the time what tends to happen is that the amount of untested technology which goes onto one of these missions is limited. I’ve done it, myself, at least a couple of times in my career, which says, ‘That’s beautiful technology but you’re not flying it on my project.’ [Laughs] Right? So the new things, like electric propulsion, tend to get introduced very slowly. Eventually somebody manages to fly it and experiment, or fly it because there’s no other way of doing it, and we get flight experience, and when we’ve got flight experience then everybody will – will be prepared to use it. But new technology does get on board these things. It tends to get – the technology tends to appear late. We don’t use the latest silicon chips because we’ve not flown them, we use the old fashioned, in fact it gets to the point at which we have difficulty in getting replacement chips because the ground technology has moved on [laughs] and we don’t want this super duper, highly concentrated chip, we actually want the one you had ten years ago that’s a crude, clunky [laughs] ‘cause we know it works.
  • Interviewee Bob Parkinson
  • Duration 00:02:38
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 1/19/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/05

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