GRA wrote:I watched it, and all through I just kept thinking, what a tremendous expenditure of human energy, brainpower and money for a meaningless stunt.
I don't agree with what was portrayed as perhaps the "main meaning" of this adventure, but I hardly see it as "a meaningless stunt".
GRA wrote:The attempted justifications to try and provide some larger context (We're popularizing sustainable energy and energy efficiency!) struck me as as at least a decade too late - If this flight had started in 2005 instead of 2015 that might have been valid, but RE and energy efficiency were both widespread and well known by the time this came about.
Bertrand Piccard conceived of this flight in 1999. No doubt he fully intended to complete this flight in, or before, 2005. I'm pretty sure he did not expect it would take 16 years and countless millions of Euros before the around-the-world flight could be started.
My family and I went to see the Solar Impulse several years back. That Solar Impulse plane that we saw at the Udvar-Hazy Museum was not this one which flew around the world, it was a prototype. In other words, that one was not quite able to achieve the final objective.
My conclusion from all of this is that this flight was not really possible before 2015. It's clear from what was portrayed in the NOVA documentary that it was barely achievable as it was. I believe that this type of "first" is important because when we look back on history, we can say with some confidence that such a feat was likely NOT possible using the technology which existed up until approximately that point in time.
GRA wrote:If you watched the show, you know that the decision to take off for Hawaii was made against the unanimous advice of the engineers, who said it wasn't worth the risk.
I did watch the show and that is NOT what happened. What ACTUALLY happened is Pierre took off for Hawaii with the full blessing of the engineering team. After some time, he reported a malfunction with the system which monitors the autopilot and alerts the pilot if it determines his attention is needed. This malfunction threatened to (and proved to) put additional stress on a pilot who was already attempting to extend a human endurance record by a large margin (over 5 days of continuous flying versus 3 days). The engineers, who have responsibility for the safety of both the pilot and the aircraft, felt that this added additional risk was not warranted and they recommended that Pierre turn around and return to Japan before he reached the limit of an abort. Pierre and Bertrand overrode their recommendation and decided to push on to Hawaii. This created a significant amount of friction within the team and Bertrand fully expected some of them to quit even if they reached Hawaii safely. NOVA did an admirable job of capturing this very human drama.
Your characterization of this decision is:
GRA wrote:That the pilot decided to do so anyway shows that this was about personal goals and not disappointing sponsors rather than gathering technical information, not that there was ever much doubt about that.
You went on to imply that this had become a "daredevil stunt". I have to agree with you that achieving the goal of flying this plane around the world was very much at the forefront of the decision to push on, but while it was originally a personal goal of only Bertrand Piccard, it had also become a corporate goal of ALL of the people involved in the effort as well as of the financial sponsors and many other supporters.
What you failed to point out were the following very pertinent facts:
- Pierre had previously aborted this flight after taking off due to adverse weather conditions, resulting in the plane being in Japan instead of China.
- The flight had been aborted again on the runway while trying to take off from Japan, again based on weather.
- As a result of these two aborts, the window was rapidly closing on successfully achieving this five-plus-day flight to Hawaii. The main reasons for this were 1) the Summer solstice had passed and thus the available solar energy for the flight was being reduced each day. There was very little energy margin, even right at the solstice, 2) The typhoon season was quickly approaching, which not only threatened to prevent the flight, but could actually destroy the blow-up hangar and the plane itself, and 3) The team was starting to suffer from severe fatigue from the waiting and the three periods of intense preparation (and worrying) for this most-difficult flight which they had just gone through.
- Bertrand felt that if this flight was aborted, the entire mission would fail.
So did they make the wrong decision? Hindsight tells us that the flight to Hawaii was a success. Pierre was certainly more harassed by the autopilot monitor than he should have been, but he did an amazing job piloting the plane and pulled through to achieve an incredible world-record feat of endurance. The batteries failed during that flight and the rest of the mission had to be pushed back until 2016, but that design issue was already baked in and was not part of the go/no go decision. And, yes, the engineers were pissed off that their recommendation had been overruled by "two managers". In the end, however, none of them quit.
I have to say I feel that Bertrand and Pierre made the correct decision. Note that those two people who made that decision were the person whose life was on the line and the person whose personal reputation was most on the line. They personally had the most to lose in case of a failure. Ultimately, the entire team would have been MUCH more upset had they aborted and had the entire mission been scrubbed.
As far as collecting data goes, the data which was yet to be collected was the data which could ONLY be gathered on this leg of the mission. They needed to find out if the plane could store enough potential and battery energy to make it through the night over the Pacific, and to do this over and over again each day for five days. They also needed to find out if Pierre could manage to fly the plane for five days. The ONLY way to collect that data was to actually DO it. It turned out that Pierre WAS able to succeed even with an additional hurdle put in his way. OTOH, it also turned out that the thermal design of the batteries was insufficient for the purpose.
Ultimately, it was bad enough that this around-the-world series of flights stretched into a second year. In my mind, that was a bit of a failure. But had they balked at attempting that longest leg in 2015, the effort possibly would have either dissolved at that point or the adventure would have stretched into the third year, with no improvement in the possibility of success, but a greatly increased probability of failure due to a loss of funding.
I appreciated that NOVA did an excellent job of showing how challenging this task really was. I appreciate this documentary in the same way that I appreciate the HBO documentary series "From the Earth to the Moon" that brought that same kind of information to light about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Ultimately, there are a LOT more challenges in such an undertaking than you can appreciate by just watching it unfold on TV or on the internet. The difference with the NOVA documentary is that they recorded the events as they happened, so likely it was more accurate than the HBO dramatizations.