They Did ItDecember 22, 2015
Whew, my anxiety has been soothed and replaced with excitement. They did it! They actually landed the rocket, perfectly.
Being an empathetic soul, I was touched to read of grown men crying at the sight of this accomplishment. One guy said he was sitting in O'Hare Airport crying as he watched the event on the TV there.
Perhaps my reflection here will be on the feeling of unity and encouragement. As a human being, the feeling of being united with our brothers and sisters, sharing joy and deep encouragement, is a profound experience.SpaceX LaunchDecember 21, 2015
For people intrigued by giant things that blast off into space, tonight (or tomorrow, possibly) is a tense time. SpaceX is returning to flight after a six months hiatus following the rocket that exploded a minute into flight in June. Not only that, this will be their first attempt at landing the rocket back on land, and if it's a successful landing, it will be a historic day -- the first commercial rocket to lob something into orbit, and then return and land on land.
There is quite a bit of anxiety in the air.
People like me realize that, while not likely, the primary mission could be a failure, either due to the rocket exploding, or due to some secondary malfunction. Even if that succeeds, there's still quite a bit of anxiety about the landing. We all want, very badly, for the landing to be a success. And if all of that wasn't enough, there's anxiety about whether the rocket will launch tonight. Anything, such as the weather, or a technical glitch, or even something else, could postpone the launch. Even if it is postponed until tomorrow, it might be postponed again, even into January.
Anxiety, and lots of it.
The anxiety about the rocket exploding is higher than it would normally be for a return-to-flight, because SpaceX, for the first time ever, is flying a modified rocket. Not only is the rocket modified, but they are for the first time ever trying a launch with a super-super-cooled variety of fuel. Anyone with an inclination of an engineer will see changes like that as an invitation for unknown things to happen. And unknown things in the world of rockets, where everything has to happen 99.9% right (or kaboom) brings with it anxiety.
Another contributor to the anxiety is that there is an atmosphere of expectation around the landing being a success. Well, expectation is perhaps a bit strong. But consider that back in June, my internal feeling for a successful landing was still around 40%... I thought it more likely that the rocket would again crash into the drone ship and go kaboom. (but also knew that it could very well work) Today, however, my internal sense is about an 80% likelihood for successful landing. And anytime you start to feel that something is likely, but not certain, you start to feel anxious, because you've told your internal self "I expect it will work, but it might not". Isn't that the very definition of anxiety? (kind of?) No one likes their expectations dashed.
On that 80% figure -- why am I feeling more confident? Well, SpaceX has had 6 months to think long and hard about the landing. That's actually quite a bit of time to tweak things, testing things, etc. Secondly, it's on land, giving them a much wider margin for error, and when you're doing something this insanely difficult, a 50% or 100% or 200% wider margin for error is huge in terms of odds of success. Just imagine the rocket, at the last minute, computing "oh crap, trying to land within 40 feet of the intended target would require aggressive tilting that brings with it low odds of success... oh, but hey, my landing area is way bigger, so forget landing within 30 feet of my target, I'll just go with 100 feet from my target". Even if the rocket were to miss the concrete and land on the packed gravel, the odds of it staying upright are probably decent. Finally, I'm going on SpaceX's posture. They (Elon) are being so bold to invite people to watch the landing from the causeway, and my understanding is that, unlike the low-probability barge landings, they'll be live-streaming the landing. I suspect they wouldn't be live streaming it if the odds of success were still below 50%. I imagine their internal sense is that the odds are > 80%. Ok, one final thought on the odds of successful landing -- they have *already* numerous times successfully done soft touchdowns, they just happened to be on the water, rather than on the barge or land. That indicates that bringing the rocket down to a soft vertical landing is pretty "easy" at this point, and the real challenge is trying to get it within 30 feet, especially if that target is moving somewhat (the barge). Perhaps one of the big unknown variables is how far from the pad SpaceX has programmed their rocket to considering an acceptable landing spot. ie. If landing within 150 feet of the target is deemed low probability by the rocket in the final seconds, will it make a compromise and accept a landing spot that is perhaps 200 feet away from center? If they have that much flexibility, I might think the odds of success to be as high as 85-90% for the landing.
Right, so lots of anxiety floating around.
I'm going to get pessimistic for a moment: Part of me expects the odds of mission failure to be much higher than people might think. The reason for that is mainly around the modifications that SpaceX has made around fuel densification, etc. It is also due to the fact that SpaceX failed three times in a row when they were building the Falcon 1. What's the point? The point is that it is somewhat in SpaceX's DNA to fail spectacularly. They are pushing the envelope, and they're pushing it hard. And when you're doing things at the very edge of what's possible, rapidly iterating and experimenting, watch out -- kaboom is going to be more likely than as compared to the guys who are taking the slow conservative approach. I actually think SpaceX is going about things the right way, so long as they don't get too
carried away with their aggressive envelope pushing. Flying this fuel densified version of their rocket on return to flight -- is that too aggressive or is it reasonable? My gut is telling me it might be a bit too aggressive. If they're successful tonight with it, and successful the next few flights with it, then they will have gotten away with it. I truly hope that's the case. But if the primary mission fails, it is going to be an almost impossibly difficult blow to SpaceX and to Elon Musk. I do worry about his emotional state. Interviews he's given make it apparent just how difficult it was for the rocket to explode in June. What would a second consecutive mission failure do to his psyche?
Perhaps the three failures of Falcon 1, and the insane pressure of 2008, will be useful experience for Elon... now that his organizations are much, much larger, knowing how to chart such difficult waters may be a huge asset.
But let's hope my pessimism is unfounded. We're all hoping for a big party tonight. (or tomorrow)Elon MuskMay 29, 2015
One of my earliest memories of Elon Musk dates back to an interview he did where he is quoted as saying that he planned to retire on Mars. I remember thinking at the time how bizarre it was that at times one hears seemingly brilliant people say really dumb things.
In the last 12 months, I've seen Elon in more and more headlines, and in the last 6 months or so, I've become quite captivated. I watched the "Revenge of the Electric Car", which I hadn't realized focused on Tesla, watched a Bloomberg documentary on him on Netflix, and more recently read the Ashlee Vance book on him. I have been especially mesmerized by the rocket landing attempts.
A few months ago I came to realize that Elon and his companies are like a super-concentrated formulation of the kinds of things that I find interesting and inspiring. Where to begin...
I think what I find most inspiring is that there are strong indications that he is being successful at making rocket re-usability a reality. When you see it happening, it's a kind of forehead slapping moment. Like duh, why haven't people been working hard on this for decades? When someone can provide the kind of leadership that turns an industry on its head -- and rocket science at that -- you have to sit up and take notice. It's inspiring.
The second aspect that I find inspiring is that he has succeeded at so many different things. Not just SpaceX, but Tesla as well. Not just those two, but SolarCity. And not just those three, but PayPal. It's mind boggling. When you see a pattern of success like that, there aren't really any modern comparisons. As even Elon points out, people tend to notice precedence and superlatives, and perhaps not coincidentally, Elon is the poster boy for both of those things in the tech world.
Of course, when people see patterns, they are tempted to extrapolate into the future. If he has done this much in 15 years, what might the next 15 years look like? Obviously no one knows, but if the pattern continues, it could make for an interesting ride.
There is a long laundry list of aspects of his approach and products that I admire, so here is somewhat of a rambling through them:Best Car Ever
In a world that is increasingly "winner takes all", I am extremely impressed with a company that produces a vehicle that is rated by respected reviewers as "the best car ever" as well as "the safest car ever". If Tesla can achieve scale and bring prices down, who knows where that could lead. (again, the increasingly "winner takes all" nature of the world these days is important there)Fastest Sedan Ever
Watching videos of the sheer terror or glee of people being accelerated from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds is some great entertainment. As a guy, I can relate to the general feeling -- even if it's just the joy of a V6 engine. Comparatively, I remember the feeling of a 1998 V6 Honda Accord as being "wow" when you accelerated onto an expressway... and it apparently has a 0-60 time of almost 8 seconds compared to the 3.1 seconds of the Tesla P85D. While almost functionally useless, we run into the phenomenon of superlatives again. What is it about superlatives that captures our imaginations?Cheap Space Prices
The US government is working on a super heavy lift vehicle and a space capsule right now with a price tag of something like $18 billion. I think some people are estimating that development + flight costs could total $40 billion. Kind of staggering. When you compare that to the development and flight costs of SpaceX hardware, it's mind boggling. Even compared to ULA, SpaceX's prices are hugely cheaper. In a world that has little patience with government waste and huge corporations that are bureaucratic, slow, and wasteful, the SpaceX prices are a huge breath of fresh air, and they set an example for what can be done with good vision and execution.Long Term Thinking For The Win
Most people probably thought that SpaceX was unlikely to succeed at putting something into orbit. But not only did they do that, they are on the cusp of demonstrating rocket reusability. How did that happen? How can a company go from being an under dog to a savant over achiever? I think a big part of that is that the vision is long term. Not just long term, super-long-term. And when you think about it, of course long term thinking is best. The problem is that we sometimes associate long term thinking with failure, because it can be hard not getting bogged down in the complexity that long term thinking can incur. But Elon seems to be demonstrating that long term thinking (+ execution) is perhaps one of his greatest gifts. And if you really are brilliant at that, then watch out.
Part of what makes it fun to watch is that you know that in any given year, he is thinking about things 5 years, 10 years, 15 years on the horizon. And likewise, in any given year, details are released on something inspiring, and you realize that it has been 5 or 10 years in the making. (in terms of vision + planning + execution) Every time it happens, it's kind of exhilarating. Perhaps it's like watching a grand master chess player, and as the game progresses, you start to sense of much careful forethought has gone into moving the game state to where it is now, for this move.Cars + Computers = ?
As I've reflected on before, kids like me who grew up in the 80s saw computers, realized how much potential they had, and then saw cars, which were kind of "dumb" but also very cool, and wondered in the back of our heads what it would be like if you could combine the two. And better than any other effort, Tesla has achieved that. The Model S is essentially a computer on wheels. Everything from its millisecond response times to traction control and braking to its huge touch screen panel to its automated system for routing you from point A to B to make use of supercharger stations. (not yet to mention that it runs on electricity) And of course, the cherry on top: That Tesla has recently emerged as one of the leaders in the race to autonomous vehicles, showing off some really impressive capabilities this year. For guys like me, my eyes bulge at this stuff. Any time you take the wistful imagination of a once 15 year old and turn that into reality, it's a rather powerful experience.Automation
I've always been a huge fan of automation, scripting, efficiency, etc, but this year especially I've been thinking about automation and its long term consequences. When I hear Elon speak, I get the sense that he's on the same page, and I think that bodes extremely well for the future of his companies. (I think it applies profoundly to all three of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity)
To use one example, imagine a fully automated factory for producing high efficiency solar panels, paired with a fully automated solar panel installation robot/system, paired with an automated order placing system. While that's a ways off (especially the installation robot), it could be as little as 2-3 decades before it is a reality... and I'm curious what that would mean for the future of electricity generation.Beautiful Factories
This seems somewhat meaningless in a way, but there's something about the sparkling, clean, white and red Tesla factory that captures my imagination. I've toured a car factory before, and it was somewhat dark, somewhat dirty. It is something deeply psychological that I can't quite put my finger on, but perhaps there is a certain genius behind it.The Machine That Makes The Machine
Elon often says that manufacturing is hard. I like how he says "it's the machine that makes the machine". He talks about the Gigafactory as a "product", as a "machine". I resonate strongly with that mentality. It may seem trivial, but there's something to it that feels important. Perhaps it's as simple as taking pride in or having passion in not just your product, but also how you make your product, which is also hugely important. He gets it.Hyperloop
When the Hyperloop was first revealed, I didn't pay much attention. Perhaps it was yet one more insane idea that, yawn, would never see the light of day. But as Elon's accomplishments have stacked up in the last couple of years, and as he has established a pattern of saying crazy things that wind up being true, suddenly the Hyperloop is something that my psyche has needed to reconsider.
I think the Hyperloop is important, in part, because it is the "outer most" node in Elon's idea sphere that he has put forth as a near-medium term possibility. It's so on the outside that he hasn't taken it on as his project to manage. So why is that important? It's important because if it is successful, it acts as a new data point for his ability to ideate something crazy (really crazy), not even manage it, and still have it manifest into reality. Which cycles back to our tendancy to extrapolate... at which point the Hyperloop works, we're left to wonder what his limits are for ideating things and having them turn into reality. (again, without him even needing to do the work) Taken to the extreme, you could imagine a genius who establishes such a track record that any time he spurts a hyperloop-like idea, there's a 90%+ chance that it is in fact a great idea that will be turned into reality. Perhaps we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves, but you can see the entertainment value in that. Already, the mere mention of just about anything far-out by Elon Musk is an instant news story. How far will it go?Reinvest
I'm not a fan of rich capitalists spending insane amounts of money of themselves. Ugh. For the most part, Elon's companies have not been about making people rich, but instead reinvesting all of the capital into furthering the companies visions. When that happens, it feels somewhat "ideal", that is if the vision and execution are excellent.
That said, Elon does live in a completely excessive house now, so he doesn't fit the ideal as well as he once did.
Something I loved was hearing about how during university he figured out he could live off of a dollar a day by eating hot dogs and oranges. This fits my personality so well -- figuring out how simply one can live for various reasons.Closing Thoughts
I'm obviously very inspired by Elon's successes and potential. Who knows where it all goes.
I have to say though, I'm still somewhat appalled by the thought of 80,000 people moving to Mars this century. That still sounds completely insane, and I'm sticking with that assessment even though Elon's track record is becoming increasingly impressive. We shall see where all of that goes...older >>