As the publicity says, the Curiosity Rover now on Mars (seen here from a Martian orbiter while descending under its parachute) is the size of a small car, about one ton, roughly comparable to a Mini Cooper. (2,500 lbs). But it is vastly more complicated, able to withstand the environment of launch from earth, and the entry and landing environments of Mars, as well as to operate with no maintenance through the three year or so lifetime of the flight (35 million miles) and surface operation.
Granted that although the environment of space used to frighten designers of spacecraft, it is now seen as fairly benign, since we have learned to control temperatures, orient ourselves, and correct trajectories on route. But the launch, entry, and landing present formidable problems in temperature control, structural design, communications, propulsion, and other areas to the designers of space craft, and the reliabily requirements are off the chart. Also, there is intense competition for being able to fly an instrument on such spacecraft, and launch vehicles are limited, so weight is of extreme importance. The Curiosity includes ten extremely complex scientific experiments in its weight, as well as the ability to move over unknown terrain, generate the necessar power, and communicate with earth.
When I worked at JPL, spacecraft were not nearly as complex, and often failed because we were just learning the game. But even then, we used to wonder about what was with cars. Why did they weigh 2 tons, when all they had to do was move down roads under human control? Why all the structure? It was certainly possible to make sufficiently stiff structure for much less weight Why did they only last for 200,000 miles or so? At 25 miles per hour, that was only 8,000 hours. The Voyager I. shown at the right , was launched 35 years ago (over 300,000 hours) has now traveled over 11 billion miles and is about to be the first object we have made to leave the solar system entirely.
Admittedly, once the Voyager left we humans, with our ability to damage things, it has had a pretty easy ride, and electronics seem to be more reliable than mechanical device, but still……
In the Sept 9 2012 issue of the New York Times, there was a review by Lawrence Ulrich of the Chevrolet Spark, a small car designed, engineered, and built in Korea, which will be sold in the U .S. The reviewer heroically tried to be positive about the car, although he could not help calling it such things as a “demented toaster”, and describing it as a “squashed face carnival buggy”. But right after the review was an article entitled “Taking the ‘Cheap’ Out of the Small Car”. Although the bias toward “big” (read heavy, “luxurious, ”over-powered, and canceling out the feel of the road) still showed, there were indications that car designers are finally closing with the problem of making more efficient and better designed transportation machines. But it did make me wonder. Where did we get this idea of and desire for “luxury” as it is defined in automobiles (and often expensive bordellos)? Why did we decide we didn’t want to hear any noise or feel the road? Why did we decide that we wanted driving to be as automatic as possible, rather than requiring more involvement of we drivers? And finally, how did we get caught in our strange expectations about what transportation machines should be?
I am still hanging on to a 1975 Alfa Romeo and a !970 Jaguar E-Type that have been in the family a long time and which I am in the process of restoring. They are not all that reliable by modern standards. I certainly don’t drive them between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And my wife’s Acura beats them as far as handling, speed, and yes, luxury, are concerned. But for most of my driving, they will be much more fun. And as for weight, it has become increasingly critical as fuel becomes more expensive and materials become more scarce (do you really think fuel prices will decrease with our new Frac gas? Wait until we add enough tax to repair our failing roads—hello European prices).
Indianapolis race cars weigh about 1500 pounds, are capable of well over 200 miles per hour, and seem to allow drivers to survive horrendous crashes. Can’t we at least make automobiles to go to the grocery store that weigh under a ton and also please Mr Ulrich?