This summer, a survey was held to figure out what Electronic Design readers thought was the World’s Greatest Engineering Movie. There were a lot of good competitors such as (the ones I’m familiar with) Iron Man and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, during the competition, a certain movie caught my attention. It seemed to be sweeping off the other competitors like cookie crumbs (sorry, ran out of metaphors). I only had the slightest idea of what the movie was (which is typical because most movies that gain popularity nowadays are the ones with the big “boom-boom” factor) and when I watched it through our local video store (yes, I’m not a pirate), I no longer wondered why it won the contest so easily.

The Winning Factors

Apollo 13, had all the right elements that make engineering such a beautiful discipline. One man’s dream and ambition, an intricate web of problems caused by a small unexpected error/failure, a retaliation of brilliant ideas of engineering ingenuity, and a little smile from the Goddess of luck. Tom Hanks certainly played his role well, and made the intensifying drama look believable. To top it all off, the events of the movie actually happened in real life.

A Closer Look at the Engineering Problems

Before proceeding, I would like to warn the reader that the following may contain movie spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the movie and wouldn’t want to kill some of the suspense, I would advise skipping the rest of the article.

The trigger of conflict began during rotation of the oxygen tanks, when a faulty inductor near the oxygen tanks ignited (remembering oxygen is combustible) consequently causing an explosion. The problem was immediately reported to mission control through the famous words – “Houston, we have a problem.” The astronauts no longer had enough power to continue and the mission was aborted, turning their spacecraft into a lifeboat. The first dilemma - how to get the astronauts back to Earth without consuming too much of the remaining fuel.

The first step taken was to power down all unnecessary equipment, of course, and then to change the course of the vehicle. To change the course of the vehicle, they used the gravity of the moon to “slingshot” them back towards Earth. The trip wasn’t entirely fruitless after all since the astronauts got a view of the dark side of the moon.

Then, the trickier problems started to surface. Having enough power to execute re-entry of the lunar module, positioning the craft in the right direction of re-entry, and a few life-sustaining problems such as exhaustion, carbon dioxide filter replacement, lack of oxygen, sickness, psychological stress, and the like.

It is interesting to note how mission control dealt with these problems in the movie. There was chaos over the readings of the instruments and everyone was starting to get stressed out. Then the leader would become goal-oriented, focusing with the end in mind, and give orders that would direct everyone towards success over the problems.

To address the carbon dioxide filter replacement, a prototype had to be developed using only what the astronauts had. Here is a good engineering lesson on improvisation of resources. When the prototype was finished, the developers communicated with the astronauts on how to construct the improvised filter (and it wasn’t easy due to the stress the astronauts were experiencing).

To position the craft just at the right angle of re-entry, the astronauts had to power up their navigation equipment. But doing so would consume too much power. Thus, they had to think of a way of positioning the craft without navigational aid from electronics. Another stroke of ingenuity strikes, where one of the astronauts suggested using the view of Earth on the window as a reference point. Again, this task, hard as it is, is made even harder due to prolonged fatigue.

Finally, sequencing the instruments for re-entry. This problem is the one I found most related to electronics troubleshooting. No matter what sequence is simulated in mission control, the equipment always end up drawing more than 2 A of current (the requirement is 2 A or less). What solution would you look for if you were in the astronauts’ shoes? What questions would you ask?

One Last Moment of Suspense

As if the brilliance wasn’t enough, there is one last possible problem that could put all the efforts and ingenuity to waste. It is a problem that is outside the control of the astronauts or of mission control. It stresses the relevance of quality assurance in engineering materials. Would the heat shields hold on while the craft is descending? If you are informed on the mission of Apollo 13, even without watching the movie, you’d know the answer to this question.

The World’s Greatest Engineering Authors

At the end of the contest, a feedback survey was e-mailed to those subscribed to Electronics Design. It asked for our personal opinions and suggestions on the contest. One question asked that if there would be another competition like this, what would you want it to be about? At first, I thought the Worlds’ Greatest Engineering Inventions/Innovations would be good. But the idea is too typical and mainstream for me. I want a contest where I could be a potential contestant. Hmmm… Eureka! The World’s Greatest Engineering Authors. Hopefully, I’d win it the same way Apollo 13 did.