An elderly relative of mine used to get irate at the BBC news. When our Prime Minister [Edward Heath] or another of her bêtes noirs of the day came on, she’d rail at the radio or the TV, expressing her views to them in no uncertain terms. It taught a young me a lot about the futility of shouting at the telly, as well as about making a spectacle of oneself.
The other evening though I found myself almost at the point of shouting at a TV programme, and since it’s one with a clear message about technology I feel it’s worth sharing here. The programme in question was one of the Impossible Engineering series, and it was talking about the technology behind the International Space Station. It was recent enough to include last year’s mission involving [Tim Peake], so it was by no means a show dredged from the archives.
All very well, you say. Impossible Engineering‘s format of looking at a modern engineering marvel and tracing the historical roots of some of its innovations would find fertile ground in the ISS, after all it’s one of our most impressive achievements and could easily provide content for several seasons of the show. And I’ll give them this, they did provide an interesting episode.
The trouble was, they made an omission. And it wasn’t just a slight omission, one of those minor cock-ups that when we Hackaday scribes make them the commenters pounce upon with glee, this one was a doozy. They managed to fill an hour of television talking about space stations and in particular a space station that was assembled by multiple countries under an international co-operation, without mention of any of the Russian technology that underpins much of its design. An egregious example among many was their featuring a new Boeing capsule designed to touchdown on land rather than on water as a novel invention, when as far as I am aware every Russian capsule ever made has performed a land-based touchdown.
Think about it for a moment. If you don’t know the history of human space exploration and the long progression of Soviet and Russian space stations over the decades that provided so much of the science and engineering on which the ISS bases its success, let me put this in earth-bound terms. It’s the equivalent of the BBC producing a show about the genesis of rock-n-roll music couched entirely in terms of [Tommy Steele], [Cliff Richard], and [Johnny Hallyday], with no mention of people like [Chuck Berry], [Little Richard], [Rosetta Tharpe], or [Elvis Presley]. If they say it’s true on the TV it must be true, right, but it wouldn’t make it any less ludicrous a portrayal of events.
It’s an unfortunate tendency that seems to exist worldwide, that of allowing national pride or even politics to dictate our narrative when it comes to technological advances. Before anyone starts pointing the finger, writing this from the United Kingdom I’m painfully aware that Brits are as bad at this as anyone else, for example when it comes to the invention of radar, or the jet engine. But when it comes to our collective achievements in space it would be nice to think we might have left some of that behind, and that’s not simply my perspective because the UK is the only country to have had a successful space programme and then cancelled it. The key word in the name of the ISS is international, and that means it would not be the craft it is without the contributions from both sides of the old Iron Curtain including mine. It shouldn’t matter whether your space hero is [Gagarin], [Shepard], or [Yang], or even [Kirk], [Dobraydushev], or [Lister], that point should be self-evident to anybody taking even the most cursory look at the field.
I was going to make a point about the children of the Apollo era having much in common with those of the Voskhod or Salyut eras in being enticed into science or engineering by the incredible achievements of the NASA and Soviet space programmes. But perhaps it’s better to refer to the fictional space heroes instead.
Television is a powerful medium, and when it gets technology coverage right it can probably inspire far more effectively than even a real space mission on the news. The Star Trek future was the place you wanted to live in, with an international crew from a world that sourced its technology from all corners of the map. By comparison the Impossible Engineering episode was certainly inspiring, but it is ironic that it seemed more fictional in its description of a real spacecraft than the entirely fictional show set several centuries hence. The producers squandered their opportunity to properly tell the story of one of our most impressive achievements, and while this piece is based upon one episode of a single show it’s symptomatic of a wider dumbing-down of the way our culture treats this part of itself.
It looks as though I’ll be doing a lot more shouting at the telly if I watch many more episodes of that particular show, but if nothing positive came of the experience it would leave this piece only as an epic rant. I must credit my colleague and editor [Mike Szczys] for providing an inspiring way forward, and suggesting that if more conventional media refuses to stand as witness to great achievements in the world of engineering, science, and technology, then perhaps we should do it for them. Tell us your favourite engineering achievements, the ones that inspired you and made you take this path, and we’ll use them for a series of features. As always, the comments await.
Meanwhile, did I ever tell you about the role of [Chas & Dave] in the early days of hip-hop? Someone ought to make a TV programme about it.