Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NASA Procedures: In Case of Emergency, Save the Icecream

Working at NASA has been a great experience for me. It is an engineer's paradise. It is also - I might remind you - a government operation. If you've been in the military or civil service, you'll understand what I mean; in a government job, normal rules of logic and common sense are still there, but they undergo a bit of a twist, like light passing too close to a black hole. I'm not saying it's good or bad. All I'm saying is that things can get rather amusing sometimes.

We have a very high-tech Coke machine in the building I work in. It has a glass front so that you can watch what it does. Instead of just dropping your coke down a chute like a normal Coke machine, this machine has a conveyor belt that moves up and down like an elevator. In order to retrieve your beverage, the machine first moves the conveyor up to the "floor" that your drink is on. The bottle (which is stored upright) is pushed onto the conveyor. Then the conveyor belt moves the bottle sideways until it gets to the end of the belt where it enters - would you believe - a chute. It's fascinating to watch when it works, but the machine is often out of order. You see, the chute is only wide enough to accept an upright bottle coming off the conveyor. The entire machine was built on the assumption that the upright bottles would never fall over. Once a bottle does fall over (which is inevitable) the machine cannot get it off the conveyor belt, and other people's purchases pile up behind it. The Coca-Cola service man has to be called every time a bottle falls over on the conveyor.

No longer a dispenser of beverages, today the Rube Goldberg Coke machine stood there, with it's conveyor jammed with bottles, as an ironic monument to overengineering. A warning, if you will, to anyone who might forget the K.I.S.S. principle.

I joked about this with one of the NASA oldtimers I work with, and he followed it up with an interesting anecdote. That's nothing, he said. A while ago we used to have an upright ice cream machine. Any time the power went out, the ice cream bars inside would melt, and gallons of vanilla ice cream would drain to the bottom of the machine and out the hole in the front. It made a terrible mess in the hallway. Eventually, something was done about it:

The building I work in is packed with radio and computer equipment, so you can well imagine that any loss of electrical power is a big deal, as equipment has to be shut down properly if possible. For this reason, we have a written procedure that is followed when loss of power is imminent, to ensure that every important piece of equipment is taken care of.

I have it on good authority that, for many years, step one of the emergency power loss procedure read:
  1. Call the Bluebell Icecream company.
Post a Comment