Spacecraft Takes Thanksgiving Break

SpaceX took anybody who was paying attention on a roller coaster today with back-to-back countdowns to less than T minus 60 seconds before aborting. Way more nerve-racking than any Thanksgiving football game.

Your initial reaction to the aborted launches might be ‘SpaceX clearly screwed up and got their just desserts for building up hype.’ But I see it in a more positive light. SpaceX was working as close to the principles of ‘try fast, fail fast,’ as you can when you have a multi-million dollar rocket and payload on the line.

Negative reactions to glitches like tonights launch and last month’s problem in the Dreamchaser’s landing gear contribute to the glacial pace of big engineering innovations. It makes sense when you consider that going very slowly on a project to try to cover all your bases only raises brief, vague annoyance. Actually trying something big and not succeeding perfectly draws  at best harsh criticism. So my take is that if nobody innocent is hurt (physically or monetarily) actually going for it should be applauded.


SpaceX could have spend many more months figuring out potential failure modes, which *may* have caught this particular one, but there is always something else that could go wrong. Instead, they built a system that could safely shut down at literally the last second in case of a problem. They also could have gone down another route and said ‘ehhh, it’s probably fine’ and ended up with a true failure, rather than just a postponed launch.

And on a semi-off topic note: I’d like to point out that SpaceX is NOT a startup. It was founded more than ten years ago and has thousands of employees.  Yes, it’s privately owned. Yes, it breaks the aerospace industry mold by following a Silicon Valley model. But please, if someone starts talking about space startups, please don’t respond with ‘oh! Like SpaceX?’


Aggravating Acronyms

A friend told me an excellent story:

When I first started seeing “FTFY” (fixed that for you), I originally thought it meant “fuck that, fuck you.”

I was *so* confused when people used it because they didn’t sound angry at all!

If anything they were being helpful.

It’s a great illustration of how regularly seen acronyms quickly become part of our mental landscape, but are gibberish (or worse, an obscene insult) to an outsider.

The acronym problem is especially bad when it comes to NASA. Just from today’s ‘what’s going on in space’ email I pulled four acronyms:  LADEE, ISS, SSOD, MAVEN. Even though I know all of their connotations, off the top of my head I can’t rattle off what all of the letters stand for in the non-ISS names. Here’s an honest transcript of my attempt at acronym-deciphering:

Lunar…*something * dust… … Small Spacecraft … Orbital? Deployer … Mars Atmosphere … * something*

Obviously, the internet makes it easy to look up the meaning, but that probably takes longer than the time supposedly saved by the acronym. Shouldn’t names be cool and evocative rather than an all-caps puzzle? What names do people remember? Voyager! Dragon! Spirit! Curiosity! Opportunity! Viking! Eagle!

Ironically, the NASA style guide literally calls acronyms a ‘plague.’ 

Specialization Surprise!

I’m a big believer in the power of specialization (thanks in no small part to Russ Roberts and EconTalk.) What I didn’t realize is that specialization has become so endemic to the modern world that you can be far more specialized than you even realize. I spent this past weekend interacting with many people outside of the space/engineering/nerd bubble, giving me a good specialization slap in the face.

Some Space Specialization Surprises:

Many educated people think that “JPL” is technical jargon.

Students working on a satellite team didn’t know what a CubeSat entailed.

Many self-proclaimed nerds have never read Ender’s Game.

I really try to avoid the attitude of  ‘everybody should know that’ you can find so frequently among people with specialized knowledge. Despite those attempts, my attitude had been ‘everybody knows that…right?’ Wrong.

That you can have specialized knowledge without even realizing it is really a testament to how much knowledge there is to be had. However, the ease of accumulating unwittingly specialized knowledge does have one danger. It leads to assumptions about what/how other people think/want/feel without even realizing it.  Not an hour goes by when spaceships haven’t gone whizzing through my mind, something that might happen once a month for someone else. The exact opposite might be true for say … fly fishing.

Not to get all philosophical and wishy-washy, but these differences can be leveraged for great things, if you know what questions to ask. That’s how Henry Ford repurposed the moving assembly line from meat packing to car manufacturing. That’s how punch cards were repurposed from automatic looms to census machines and then computers. All through people with one set of specialized knowledge realizing that there were other knowledge bubbles and giving them a little poke.

Some Updates

The experiment of posting every day has been an awesome, exhausting, challenge. Like everybody I know of who’s tried a post a day (except Tyler Cowen) I can’t keep it up. There comes a  point where the benefits of keeping it up are outweighed by the costs.

I’m going to continue to post at least twice a week and also over on the SSDS blog.

Additionally, I’ve decided to stick my toe into the twitterverse with the handle @ben_reinhardt.

Waves of Crashing

Since installing Mac OSX Mavericks yesterday, my computer has crashed more than once per hour – three times while writing this post, clearly trying to keep me from tattling. The problem probably lies in a faulty video card aggravated by a modern, flashy OS, rather than Mavericks itself.

Regardless, the experience has helped me solidify a key criteria that good technology must meet: A good technology should eliminate, rather than add, barriers standing in the way of spending time on important things.

Important things can be anything from spending time with loved ones to building an awesome new thing. I need to check that the sensors are working so that I can measure the position of an air cart so that I can create a feedback loop in order to actually test my ideas about implementing an eddy current actuators. What I actually want to do is three layers deep. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

Less-than-useful technologies like a crashing computer or apps with more bells and whistles than you can count add layers. Good technologies, like cars, telephones and indoor plumbing remove them. Unfortunately, I think a lot of new, cute, apps fall into the latter category because inventors and entrepreneurs don’t keep the distinction in mind.


Yesterday’s post got me thinking more about useful questions. Finding a useful solution is always predicated on someone asking a useful question that puts you down the path to that solution. Going forward, the ability to ask useful questions is going to be more and more key to gainful employment, as computers and robots take over the task of generating answers. Even answers we thought only humans could find.  However, the day when IBM’s Watson will come up with innovative questions is still far beyond the horizon.

How do we learn to ask good questions? As I mentioned yesterday, it has a lot to do with experience. Either you generate your own hard-earned experience or draw on that of a mentor. In this regard, I think apprenticeships, trade schools, and PhD programs have a vast advantage over most traditional undergraduate education.

In question training, Cornell engineering seems to create a division: the undergraduate education teaches you to create answers, and a graduate education prepares you to create questions. The problem with this structure is that people are less and less needed to create answers, which I’d guess be an unaddressed factor in the declining value of an undergraduate degree in many fields. Also, the longer someone is taught only to find answers, the harder it is for them to start asking good questions.