Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 11:09 pm, Monday, August 29th, 2016
Here’s a round-up of exciting news in the engineering world, which means this is a journal entry that probably only my dad and I will read in full:
On August 14th SpaceX landed its sixth rocket (two on land, four on a barge at sea), making this amazing feat of engineering seem almost ordinary. Even better, the first rocket that they ever landed is now on display at their headquarters down the road in Hawthorne, so Audrey and I got to visit it this past weekend, and can do so again anytime I need a spaceship in my life (i.e. a lot). Supposedly they will be launching the initial flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket to take to the skies since the Apollo era, before the end of the year. SpaceX also claims to be on schedule with their manned program, so people may be regularly going to space in a non-Russian rocket again starting next year. Finally, they are going to announce details about their BFR (yes, it stands for what you think it stands for) for traveling to Mars in the coming months. We live in the best time in history.
Tesla just announced an upgrade to the Model-S that they have dubbed the P100D. The new model goes 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, travels 315 miles on a charge, and costs more than the combined price of six Subarus. Luckily, the trickle-down effect ensures that their less expensive cars will eventually inherit much of this new technology, so those of us who don’t want to take out a second mortgage to buy an electric car won’t have to do so. Additionally, they continue to claim that the Model-3 is on schedule for deliveries in late 2017, the ginormous Gigafactory, while still only a fraction of its eventual size, is already being used to produce battery packs, and all-in-all Tesla remains the coolest car/energy/battery company that has ever existed. Did I mention that we live in the best time in history?
In non-Elon Musk news, Boeing’s new 737-MAX airplane is well into its test flight schedule and might actually be ready to deliver earlier than planned; the new plane was originally scheduled to begin service with Southwest in the third quarter of 2017, but it looks like it will be delivered several months sooner. Given the fact that the 737 is the most common passenger plane in the air today, the majority of air travelers will soon enjoy quieter, more comfortable, and more efficient air travel. Planes aren’t as awesome as spaceships (what is?) but they occupy an exclusive level of coolness that is shared with few other human endeavors.
Locally, the much-maligned California High Speed Rail project is actually under construction, with bridges, viaducts and other structures being built near Fresno. The project thus far is a great idea that has spawned a series of ever-more-dismaying disappointments, but even with its problems it now seems highly likely that in 10-25 years it will actually be completed, after which Californians will probably wonder why anyone would have opposed such a valuable piece of infrastructure. And for the record, high speed trains occupy a similar realm of coolness as airplanes.
Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 3:35 pm, Thursday, March 31st, 2016
At 8:30 tonight Tesla will unveil their third-generation electric car. A company that just five years ago was mocked for having the audacity to think they could survive, much less compete with the existing automotive behemoths, is on the verge of launching a $35,000 automobile that is projected to sell 500,000 vehicles every year by 2020, and is one of the most anticipated new car launches in history.
We live on a planet where global warming due to greenhouse gases is already causing massive disruptions to ecosystems not capable of handling rapid climate change, where even an area as remote as the North Pole faces hazardous air quality, and a seemingly infinite number of other environmental problems can easily lead to hopelessness and despair.
In a world faced with challenges that can seem overwhelming, it’s worth marking this date. Tonight the next generation of the automobile is being unveiled, and it changes the paradigm of how transportation affects the environment. This new car is driven by advances in battery technology that will have applications for all sectors of the energy industry, and will almost certainly change the way the world is powered. And it was created in spite of a hostile political environment by engineers who saw a problem and set out to solve it by building the best car that they could design. We live in the future, and the future seems like it’s going to be a good place to be.
Posted from Culver City, California at 7:22 pm, Monday, December 28th, 2015
Six months ago, after seventeen consecutive successful launches, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket blew up during its journey to orbit. I was bummed.
Last Monday SpaceX returned to flight, and not only successfully completed the mission but also brought the first stage back to the launchpad and landed it vertically. I’m not sure how the average person views that accomplishment, but to this engineer watching the live webcast it was one of those jumping-up-and-down-and-cheering-while-no-one-else-is-in-the-house things. The history of spaceflight since the 1960s has been a series of minor improvements, but this is a major new development that could have vast repercussions for how we access space. Using an imperfect metaphor, a rocket costs a similar amount to an aircraft, and the airlines aren’t charging $60 million per flight, so the ability to use a rocket more than once has the potential to vastly reduce costs for getting things into space. Everyone immediately thinks of sending more humans into orbit when considering cheaper access to space, but think about the revolutionary impact that communications satellites, planetary probes, the Hubble telescope, and earth monitoring satellites have had on our daily lives and our understanding of the universe, and then increase that by at least an order of magnitude if costs decrease. Then jump up and down and cheer.
SpaceX still has some significant technical challenges to address before they can actually re-use their rockets, but there is reason to believe that in the next few years they will have figured out how to use each rocket more than once, and this recent landing will mark a historical turning point when options for space increased dramatically. I’m excited.
This rocket went to space, deployed its second stage, and then returned to the launchpad and landed vertically. That’s ridiculously excellent.
Posted from Culver City, California at 8:24 pm, Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
I wrote the following about the California High Speed Rail project 18 months ago:
Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan.
Since I wrote the above there have been a few positive developments:
California has budgeted 25% of all cap and trade funds to high speed rail, amounting to $750 million in 2015 and likely increasing in future years, so the project now has a not-insignificant portion of its funding. Whether devoting such a large percentage of cap and trade revenue to high speed rail is the best use of the funds is highly debatable, but viewed solely from the standpoint of the rail project it is a positive development.
Construction has started in the Central Valley, and even if the project somehow fails to be completed the initial work will still offer safety and traffic benefits via grade separation of existing rail lines.
There has been discussion about expediting the Palmdale to Burbank section of high speed rail, which could be operated on its own to reduce commute times in LA from ninety minutes down to twenty. While the Bay Area and the Central Valley are fighting high-speed rail, Southern California has so far been enthusiastic about the potential for improved transit options.
Of the two segments of the network that have been bid out for construction, both have come in under the projected budget. The first segment, 30 miles from Madera to Fresno, was estimated to cost $1.2-1.5 billion but was bid for $985 million. The second segment, 65 miles from Fresno south, was estimated to cost $1.5-2 billion, but was bid for $1.36 billion.
Despite the positive developments there remain an enormous number of reasons for concern:
The rail agency is still sticking with cost estimates that are almost certainly unrealistic. While the two segments in the Central Valley came in under budget, building a route through the mountains and across active seismic faults, as well as through the densely populated Bay Area and Los Angeles area, will most definitely be difficult and expensive, and that cost and difficulty will only be increased by the ongoing delays.
High speed rail has unfortunately become a political issue, with all Republicans now expected to state their opposition to anything that resembles a high-speed train, no matter what its merits may be. There would be tremendous benefit in having critical yet rational oversight of California’s rail project, but politicizing things unfortunately has the effect of causing one side to promote the project and gloss over its faults, while the other promises to kill it at the first opportunity despite its obvious benefits.
I hope that this project is eventually built, but I’m far less enthusiastic than I once was due to the poor management that has characterized things so far. In my own community I’ve watched millions of dollars disappear into legal fees as Beverly Hills fought a much-needed subway for no reason that anyone can understand, and I’ve watched my own neighbors fight changes to make flights into LAX more efficient solely because some areas might occasionally get slightly louder plane noise; neither of those situations inspire confidence that a questionable management team will be able to quell the opposition to the much larger and more complex rail project sufficiently to allow the project to be a success. That said, it’s worth remembering that nearly every major infrastructure project, whether the Golden Gate bridge or the interstate highway system, was loudly opposed by some of the populace, but once built the opposition disappeared as the benefits became obvious. With luck, in another 20 years we’ll be riding the train to San Francisco and wondering how anyone could have ever opposed such a useful transit option.
This video will be much more awesome when it isn’t CGI.
Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 5:42 pm, Friday, July 31st, 2015
As is often the case, when it’s the end of the month and I don’t have anything in particular to write about, I write about spaceships.
The cause of the SpaceX rocket explosion has been announced as a strut that snapped due to a manufacturing defect. It doesn’t sound like there is 100% confidence that’s actually what happened, but if it was the cause then it’s a relatively easy fix and one that will lead to a more reliable vehicle. Future launches aren’t expected to be postponed more than a few months while the issue is addressed.
NASA’s giant new rocket, creatively named the “Space Launch System (SLS)”, has had several successful engine tests and is scheduled for first flight in 2018. It would be the most powerful rocket ever launched, but is unfortunately a machine without a clear purpose – there are no imminent plans to send people to Mars or the moon, and with a price tag of at least $500 million per launch (and up to $5 billion by some critical estimates) it is far more expensive than any other option for satellite launches or space station resupply missions.
The New Horizons spacecraft just zoomed by Pluto, providing some surprising information about a dwarf planet that is about 40 times further away from the sun than the Earth is. This plucky little spacecraft was initially cancelled in 2000, but a large backlash revived its funding, and it spent nearly a decade after its 2006 launch reaching the edge of the solar system. Its useful life is expected to be 15 years, meaning there should be plenty of science to come as it travels through the Kuiper Belt.
Last of all, for anyone not quite clear on how far away Pluto really is, here’s a model of the solar system that has been scaled so that the moon is the size of a single pixel. Spoiler alert: Pluto is FAR away.
False color image of Pluto, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. We live in a time when robots are sending us photos of other planetary bodies from 4.7 billion miles away, and that is AWESOME. Photo from NASA.
Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:37 am, Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
Despite being wiped out from four straight weeks of travelling for work, I got up at 7AM Sunday morning, partly because my brain is running on Central time and partly because I’m an engineering geek and wanted to watch the latest SpaceX launch to see if they would finally be successful in their ludicrous attempts to land a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Instead, about two minutes into the launch, I saw a live webcast of the rocket disintegrating as it was traveling at a speed of approximately 4000 km/h. From the video it was clear that something exploded on the second stage portion of the rocket, but unfortunately more than 48 hours later there still doesn’t seem to be any clue as to what specifically went wrong.
I’m bummed about it.
Prior to this flight the Falcon-9 rocket had a perfect record – yes, there were some minor glitches on previous flights (an engine exploded once…), but it successfully completed its primary mission on each launch, and did so at a fraction of the cost of any other rocket. At the same time, the way SpaceX was operating was a throwback to the early days of flight and space, when people dreamed big and not only tried to do impossible things, but succeeded with surprising regularity. Since those early days aerospace has become slow, bloated and hugely risk averse, so the upstart SpaceX provided the hope that they might be the ones to bring the future that seemed all-but-certain in 2001: A Space Odyssey closer to reality. With luck their engineers will be able to pinpoint the cause of the failure and return to service with an even more robust vehicle, but at this moment the cause of the explosion is a complete mystery, and thus the Falcon-9 is a machine with an unknown fatal flaw. For anyone who was amazed at the incredible successes of SpaceX thus far, and excited about what this rocket meant for the future of spaceflight, this setback is a disheartening reality check.
However, rocket science is very, very, very hard – that’s one reason I switched to computer programming, where if I make a bad assumption in my work it usually won’t result in pieces of a $60 million machine being scattered over a vast swath of the Atlantic. Given their surprisingly successful track record to this point, I would not bet against SpaceX recovering from this failure in a big way – they still have plans to ferry astronauts to the space station in a Falcon-9, are still on the verge of being able to land and re-use a rocket, and they still have a long list of customers anxious to use their lower-cost rockets for satellite launches.
On Saturday night prior to the launch I was watching a documentary about the dawn of powered flight that highlighted the competition between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. On an early demonstration flight for the army the Wright’s flying machine crashed, killing an army lieutenant and putting Orville Wright into the hospital for months. Similarly, on a test flight the day before his first public demonstration, Curtiss had mechanical difficulty and his machine crashed. The Wrights regrouped and were soon aloft again, and Curtiss rebuilt his machine overnight and then made the longest powered flight in history the following day.
Elon Musk got the worst possible gift for his 44th birthday on Sunday, but there seems to be little doubt that history will remember him as one of the great engineer entrepreneurs of of the 21st century, and like Curtiss and the Wrights he will most certainly emerge from this setback stronger than ever.
Video of the “anomaly” that caused the loss of the Falcon-9 rocket on Sunday. Skip to 2:25 if you want to see the sad part.
What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options.
I read a lot of news that continues to make me hopeful about the steady technological progress being made, and while it may be of interest mostly just to me, here’s one such example. First, a caveat: most new companies and technologies will fail for one reason or another – they will be poorly managed, there will be some unforeseen problem that throws the business model into disarray, or they will simply be unlucky. This journal entry isn’t necessarily meant to highlight something that will definitely become a solution to the world’s problems, but is simply meant to illustrate one way that solutions are being developed to address seemingly dire issues, and how those solutions have the potential to make the world a much better place.
Tesla is in the process of building a massive lithium-ion battery plant that will double the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries when it is running at full capacity. Business analysts are focusing on the fact that this factory will eat up a huge supply of the world’s lithium, driving up prices and potentially depleting the world’s reserves of this valuable element. These analysts suggest that the world simply won’t have what it needs, resulting in manufacturing shortages and disruption to the technology sector. Engineers, however, mostly ignore the business analysts in this case. So why the difference?
Concentrated lithium reserves are rare, but as a trace element lithium is the 25th most common element on earth – there are 230 billion tons of it in seawater alone. Current methods of extracting lithium involve processing it from salts and brine pools, which requires evaporation followed by disposal of potentially toxic byproducts. Queue the engineers. While the following may not end up being the solution to the world’s lithium needs, it provides an example of how engineering seems to always find solutions that defy the doom-and-gloom scenarios of business analysts.
Today, the three main problems with lithium production are:
It is difficult to find sources of lithium that are concentrated enough to make production worthwhile.
The energy costs associated with extracting lithium, whether via evaporation or some other processing method, can be high.
Safe disposal of the byproducts left over after the lithium is extracted add additional cost.
Enter lithium extracted from geothermal wastewater. Geothermal plants drill into the earth’s crust to tap into superheated water which is brought to the surface, used to generate power, and then pumped back into the formation from which it was extracted. This geothermal water just so happens to be very high in mineral content, including valuable elements like lithium. Suddenly, the problems associated with lithium production are not so severe:
Geothermal waters are high in mineral content, and the geothermal plant has already done the work of bringing that water up from the depths of the earth’s crust.
The water is already superheated, greatly reducing the energy costs required for processing.
The byproduct after extracting the valuable elements from this geothermal wastewater is no more toxic than what was extracted in the first place, and the geothermal plant already has the infrastructure in place for safely pumping it back to the formation from which it was originally extracted.
Making this method of lithium production an even bigger win, using geothermal wastewater for production of rare elements helps reduce the costs of geothermal power in two ways. First, a major issue faced by geothermal plants is the buildup of mineral deposits in the pipes used to return wastewater to the geothermal reservoirs, so extraction of some of those minerals reduces the wear and tear on the infrastructure, meaning pipes have to be replaced less often. Second, companies using the wastewater compensate the geothermal plant for providing the water, introducing an additional revenue stream for the plant. Thus, in the end the world gets both a cheaper, cleaner source of rare elements, and reduced costs for a renewable energy source.
In this particular example, the first attempt to extract lithium from geothermal wastewater has had a rocky rollout, with the first company to build a demonstration plant now facing funding difficulties, but a solution will be found. Where the majority of people see problems, the engineers of the world see potential solutions, and that gives me confidence that the worst of the world’s issues will eventually be solved; I’m excited to see what innovations will be created in the process.
Posted from Culver City, California at 6:42 pm, Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
Mostly because it’s fun for me to put these lists together, for the final post of 2014 here’s a look back at some news events that I got excited about:
SpaceX Reusable Rockets – The important caveat is that SpaceX hasn’t yet landed and re-used a rocket, but this year they figured out how to take a first stage that was plummeting back towards earth at multiple times the speed of sound, slow it down, and fire its rockets so that it could “land” vertically on a pre-determined spot in the ocean. That’s a really big deal, and their next launch is going to attempt to vertically land a rocket on a floating platform. It is an awesome time to be a fan of spaceships.
Transbay Center – The “Grand Central Station of the West Coast” finally began poking its head above ground this year, with the first structural steel being put into place during the past few months. When completed, this massive development will be the home for California High Speed Rail, Caltrain, Muni, buses, and will be the heart of a new San Francisco neighborhood.
Los Angeles subway – Ground was actually broken for a subway to the Westside in Los Angeles, and the residents of Hell all donned jackets. If ever there was a city in need of vastly improved mass transit it is LA, and slowly but surely the situation is improving.
Tesla Gigafactory – Tesla announced that it will be building a battery factory outside of Reno that will produce more lithium-ion cells in a single facility than are produced by all other manufacturers in the world combined, with the goal of dropping prices on their battery packs by one-third and giving them the ability to quickly innovate on a core component. This move has huge ramifications for US manufacturing (Reno?!?! What other commodity technology isn’t built in Asia?), energy storage (see JB’s talk to understand how energy storage is going to massively change the world), and Tesla’s future automobiles.
Solar technology – Related to the previous item, solar panel prices have gotten dramatically cheaper over the past few years, to the point where solar power is now cost-competitive with grid electricity in many places. There is no reason to believe that trend shouldn’t continue for the immediate future, which will mean that many homeowners may soon be choosing between solar panels and a local battery storage unit versus paying more for power from the electric company. Suddenly power that produces no CO2 emissions looks like it could become a dominant force in the world market, and the environmental outlook begins looking a bit less grim.
I’m sure I’ve probably missed some obvious stuff (Europe landed a probe on a comet!), but that’s a decent sample of things that excited me during the year. Hopefully 2015 will continue the trend – we live in exciting times.
SpaceX vertical rocket landing test, showing off the grid fins used for steering the rocket during its supersonic descent. Also, there are some cows that get freaked out at the two-and-a-half minute mark.
Posted from Culver City, California at 10:54 pm, Thursday, May 29th, 2014
Four headlines of note this week:
SpaceX announced version two of their Dragon space capsule, this one capable of carrying astronauts. They are on track to be carrying people into space by 2017, and this new capsule is both reusable and capable of landing almost anywhere using maneuvering thrusters. The goal is to be able to fly it back to the launch pad, refuel it, strap it to a rocket, and send it into space again, thus greatly reducing costs and putting all of us space nerds one step closer to a trip into orbit. For anyone still reading who isn’t an engineering geek, this announcement may be considered one of the big moments in the advancement of technology in a few decades.
A $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River (yes, there is one) was announced today. LA’s preferred restoration option was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, and eleven miles of concrete will soon be removed and returned to a more natural state. I’m torn on this one – any time we can keep something natural, or fix damage that has been done, I’m a fan, but $1 billion could have been used to restore vastly larger and more important wetlands elsewhere (example). That said, bringing some nature back to the concrete jungle of LA will be a welcome change.
In more controversial news, the EPA is about to unveil serious efforts to combat climate change by setting CO2 limits on power plants. It’s highly doubtful that the EPA’s proposals are the best solution to the issue of climate change, but since the Senate killed the Cap & Trade bill in 2010, direct executive action has become the only viable option for addressing a very serious problem. With any luck, once these rules go into effect it will spur Congress to debate a better solution that does more to address the problem while producing less chaos in the marketplace, much like what was originally intended with the 2009 Cap & Trade bill.
Apple holds their Worldwide Developer Conference next week, where they are expected to announce a framework for integrating iPads and iPhones with home devices like lights, security systems, etc. They may also announce their rumored health-related watch, and while I’m skeptical about it, if anyone can make a device that promotes healthy living it’s Apple, and the thought of people having something on their wrist that encourages exercise, good eating, and other good behavior while also notifying them of serious health issues, that seems like a big win.
That’s a lot going on all at once, and even without a pressing deadline to get in three journal entries before the end of the month, they seemed significant enough to record for posterity. Ten years from now I’ll either read this while looking at my Apple health-monitoring device and watching the latest space tourist launch into orbit, or I’ll do neither of those things and wonder how I could have ever thought these announcements were significant
Posted from Culver City, California at 9:41 pm, Sunday, March 30th, 2014
While the East Span of the Bay Bridge is finally operational, there are a bunch of other projects going on in California that the engineer in me continually follows up on. While I may be the only one interested, it’s fun to re-read these entries a few years later, so here’s a status report on a few of them:
Transbay Center – This San Francisco project is essentially building the Grand Central Station of the West Coast, a $4.5 billion development that will bring together eleven different transit agencies and eventually include Caltrain service in downtown, and (theoretically) high-speed rail. Shockingly the project is mostly on schedule, with most of the below-ground work done and the above ground work set to start this summer. Completion is scheduled for Summer 2017.
California High Speed Rail – Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan. Killing the project now probably means it will be another decade before anything new could be proposed, but that might be better than building it poorly, and in the interim it might be possible for a less ambitious (and probably more profitable) route from LA to San Diego, or LA to Las Vegas, to be built and prove the viability of such a system.
Farmer’s Field – If anyone could bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and redevelop a huge section of downtown with a stadium and other venues it would be AEG, and most of the approval for this $1.2 billion project is in place. However, with no NFL team ready to move, the continued redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles is on indefinite hold, and in the interim parking lots and unused office buildings fill an area that should be a centerpiece of the LA area.
I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to huge construction projects, and these four projects are particularly exciting ones since they all have the potential to dramatically change the regions in which they are built.
Posted from Livermore, California at 10:51 pm, Thursday, February 27th, 2014
Two notes about two of my favorite companies:
Tesla Motors announced a bit more about their proposed “gigafactory” this week, which (if built) will produce as many lithium ion batteries in a single, massive US plant as were produced in the entire world in 2013. They will be partnering with established battery manufacturing firms, giving them the necessary know-how and experience to make this happen, and making it possible that a component that we take for granted as coming from Asia could suddenly be produced primarily in the US. What’s more, by bringing production in-house Tesla foresees significant economic advantages, and I suspect that they will work hard to innovate in battery technology and thus quickly drive down the cost and improve the efficiency of their most important component. Longer term, Tesla Motors might follow Apple Computer in dropping the second half of its name as the company gains the ability to produce massive battery packs that could be tied to the electric grid to provide large-scale energy storage, thus revolutionizing the electrical grid in as significant a way as what Edison and Nikola Tesla did at the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, Spacex will be launching another rocket to the International Space Station in mid-March. While they have seemingly made the once-unthinkable task of private rocket launches seem almost mundane, this launch will be noteworthy for having landing legs attached to the first stage. The plan is to try to “soft land” the rocket into the ocean as a test, with the goal of controlling things sufficiently that the rocket can eventually be flown back to the pad and re-used. Spacex has already reduced launch costs to almost one-third of what their competitors charge, but if they can create a truly reusable rocket then costs will plummet (think of the difference in costs of air travel if we only used each plane for a single flight) and an age of space exploration that rivals the journeys of European explorers after the Middle Ages could conceivably begin.
It is of course entirely possible that either of these companies could fail in their efforts, but it’s not hyperbole to say that if they each meet their goals that they will change the world as we know it in very dramatic ways. It’s a fun time to be alive.
Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 am, Sunday, June 30th, 2013
It’s not a secret that I think Elon Musk’s three companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City) are three of the most exciting businesses out there, and that each is likely to radically change the world for the better. Enough has been written about Tesla lately, but two items of great excitement with respect to SpaceX haven’t gotten a ton of attention.
First is their efforts towards a more reusable rocket. As Elon Musk has put it, space travel today is comparable to airline travel if you had to throw away the plane after each trip – most of the reason that space launches are so expensive is that you either don’t get the vehicle back after launch (most rockets), or when you do it takes so much work to get it back into flight-worthy condition that there isn’t any cost savings (the space shuttle). SpaceX originally planned on recovering their rockets in the ocean using parachutes, but when that proved infeasible they moved to a vertical takeoff and landing model. Here’s a video of a test of SpaceX’s ten story take-off and landing vehicle rising 250 meters into the air, then landing vertically. They’ll be testing this system on actual rockets returning from space starting later this year, with a goal of being able to reliably land and re-use the rocket in a few years time.
Second, they are planning on a test launch of their new Falcon Heavy vehicle in the coming year. If you need to put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit, this will be the only vehicle that can do it, and combined with its lower launch costs could create all sorts of new options for satellites (for comparison, the Delta IV Heavy is the current largest rocket on the market, and it can carry around 50,000 pounds). Even more exciting, this will be the first rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket with that amount of power.
It’s sad that after advancing from airplanes to moon rockets in under two decades our exploration of space has seemed to stagnate for fifty years, but it’s hugely exciting to be on the precipice of another major evolution of travel beyond the planet’s atmosphere.
For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:
It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.
That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.
Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.
Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:
Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.
However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?
Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.
In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.
Posted from Culver City, California at 8:56 pm, Sunday, March 31st, 2013
I live in a city with a space shuttle, and that makes me very, very happy. Yesterday the girl took me to visit it at the California Science Center, and there was much rejoicing. The supporting exhibits include a wealth of information about the mysterious “space potty”, computers from mission control, and a history of the shuttle program. The highlight, obviously, is the opportunity to visit up close with a vehicle that has traveled at 17,500 miles per hour, fixed the Hubble telescope and built the space station, cost $2.1 billion to build, and withstood temperatures of over 3000°F.
For reference, here are journal entries from past encounters with the spaceship:
Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.
To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.
Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.
Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.
When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.
People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.