Meaningful Distinction:

Patrick S. Lasswell Look outward for something to accomplish, not inward for something to despise.
pslblog at gmail dot com
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
Object of Beauty

I have an object of beauty on my desk. I think it is beautiful, some might argue that it has an insufficient dynamism. It is in fact more skillfully rendered than almost any artist would take the time to create these days, if they had the skill. It is balanced on all axes, it is light enough to lift with your littlest finger, and it is strong enough to lift my house. It is a rail adapter for an AGM-84 Harpoon missile that was discarded for a slight damage sometime in the early nineties, literally thrown on the scrap heap, and collected by me shortly before I left the Navy. It is an inert chunk of metal and a reminder of the definition of power.

The object of beauty is worthy of consideration. From this small piece of metal, no longer than your forearm, the entire weight of the missile was hung. During launch, this piece of metal, no thicker than my index finger in any dimension, would hold the missile in place until the rocket booster had come to full power. Then it would travel down the launching rails, holding the missile in place, until it exited traveling a substantial fraction of the speed of sound, all in the length of a small dining room.

It is marvelously well machined and fabulously well preserved. Although it's time on the scrap heap left it with many marks and scrapes, it has no signs of corrosion after nearly a decade of sitting in a box unattended. What the blemishes do not conceal, however near perfection of machining and design that went into its creation. Every facet of the object, and there are hundreds, has been perfectly machined to a fine tolerance. This could probably be attached to any Harpoon missile in the fleet tomorrow and fit flawlessly.

In all likelihood, it was designed and built by some of the people who put men on the moon. Those long retired steely eyed missile men of the cold war crafted this wonderment on a drafting board, checking their figures with slide rules. Every facet is machined, each to tolerances finer than most motors. For that matter, this one piece of metal probably cost more than most engine blocks. When this was designed, it probably took months of planning, weeks of refining, days of machining, and years of testing. Today, with the latest computer aided design, manufacturing, and preliminary testing, the whole project could be ready for test in a few weeks, less time than that if put on crash priority. For all the yammering about $400 hammers, the United States has a design and production capacity that is tremendous and efficient. The price of our weapons systems is dropping while their quality and capability is increasing dramatically.

If designed today to deliver the same capabilities and tolerances without concern for the bureaucratic maze, this same object could be built smoother, with less material waste, fewer machining steps, less weight, even closer tolerances, higher strength, less airfoil disruption, and for less money. Even so, this is an object of beauty to me. Saddam Hussein, al Queda, and the Taliban could not make anything so fine, and I think that is beautiful. The organization, understanding, teamwork, science, capitol, and industrial capacity necessary to create this kind of weapon are not available to intolerant racists. We should all take more time to appreciate beauty and what makes it possible.
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