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Volume 17, Issue 27;   July 5, 2017: Tackling Hard Problems: II

Tackling Hard Problems: II

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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightning

Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightning. Moderately big, continent-sized dust storms occur several times per Mars year, which is about 687 Earth days. And, on average, once every three Mars years, a dust storm will grow to cover the entire planet. Dust is a real problem for mechanical equipment. As experience with rover vehicles has already revealed, dust can penetrate gear assemblies and other moving parts. And it reduces the efficiency of solar panels, which makes regular cleaning necessary even outside the context of dust storms. Read about dust on Mars. Image courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Last time, we described an approach to solving difficult problems that I called "Right-To-Left Thinking," where we imagine that we've found a path to our objective, and then ask, what enabled us to reach the objective? I called the list of those items pre-Objectives. We illustrated all this for the problem of establishing a Mars colony. This time, we'll continue developing pre-objectives, and then connect the beginning to the objectives.

Make pre-pre-objectives
Now that we have some pre-objectives, adopt them as the objective, and ask the same question we asked about the original objective: "If we reached the pre-objectives, what enabled us to do it?" The answer: pre-pre-objectives. Repeat this until we can't move back any further to the "left."
For the Mars colony, we ask where is there enough water to meet the colony's needs? How much power is needed to extract the water and break it down for oxygen? How thick a layer of soil would provide adequate radiation shielding? And so on.
Go back to the beginning
Now that we Getting traction on a hard
problem is easier if you can
clarify where you have to go
have some objectives, pre-objectives, and pre-pre-objectives, let's examine what we actually have to begin with. List conceptual and material assets, including things we know and things we have. Don't list everything — we can always add items later.
For the Mars colony, we know we must send material to make a power plant, a power storage facility, transportation vehicles, a water harvesting plant, a waste treatment and water recovery facility, construction equipment, a GPS navigational system, habitat, water and oxygen storage, food production facility, and so on. Multiple supply trips from Earth are required, even if the structures can mostly be robotically 3D-printed from Martian material. Much of the needed equipment can be prepositioned, if we know where to put it.
Move forward from the beginning
Next, find a path toward the "right" from the beginning to someplace closer to the "leftmost" pre-objectives. Construct a list of what must be done with the assets we have. Cleverly, I call this a To-Do List.
For the Mars colony, we need detailed maps of enough terrain to select a settlement site. Are there any caves? Which parts of the Martian surface have enough water? To calculate power storage requirements, we need to know the frequency, intensity, and duration of dust storms. Dust storms present other problems as well, because the dust particles can affect mechanical equipment, and because they support electrical discharges — lightning. Therefore we need to know how to protect equipment from dust and lightning. We can conduct this research from Earth and from Mars orbit, to assist in planning.

Working from the beginning is much easier when we have our pre-objectives in mind. They guide our thinking about the beginning. And so it goes, toggling back and forth between "left" and "right," until we can connect the beginning to the end. Voila! See you on Mars. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Performance Issues for Non-Supervisors  Next Issue

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