Stairway to Heaven

September 30, 2016

This was this week’s hype in the aerospace industry: Elon Musk presented his vision for reaching Mars and beyond. There are countless analyses and reviews of his presentation (here for instance for a technical one) weighting either in favor or against Musk.


The ITS on Europe. Credit: SpaceX

I got several times the question by friends, colleagues about what I , as an ex space propulsion engineer, was thinking about the feasibility of this vision. The bare answer is: I don’t know. I mean, there is not enough information in this presentation to evaluate the feasibility of the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). I wonder how pundits can get an opinion on that. There has been countless Mars mission design proposals in the past. This one is not really different. It is both credible and far-fetched because written on the same model: you assess the requirements (in terms of costs, mission duration, target), you take the existing technology (to be credible) and you extrapolate it to meet the requirements (and it may look far-fetched or not, whether you are part of the proposal team or not). So basically, here, SpaceX develops the cost model to have almost routine trips to Mars (very cheap but it is a target – it makes sense to have something cheap if you want to “democratize” space); it takes the existing technology, a bit improved (the Raptor), the reusable launcher (complete reusability instead of only first stage) and it extrapolates the system (increase the number of engines, huge composite tanks,…) to be able to have a cheap transport. This is what was presented. There is no new concept, no really new technology.

So, how can you assess the feasibility of the mission? You cannot because there are missing data on the critical part: the execution. And in the space industry, the execution is the key from failure to success. What methods do they want to apply? How do they want to adapt their organization, their team, to meet the challenges? What new tools will they use to transfer this concept in reality?

If you think of it, SpaceX has not invented new technologies or radically new concepts of missions. They have taken existing ideas that other private companies have also taken (vertical landing – McDonnell and Blue Origin, space capsule with Orbital). I assume that NASA played an important role for the transfer of technology towards private company and that they didn’t need a huge effort of research and development. But what Musk did and this is a huge change, was to set up a modern organization managing both the system and the underlying technologies (propulsion, GNC, actuators), something that the Big Players like Boeing or EADS didn’t bother to do because technology is low-level. Adding to that modern IT tools to automate the manufacturing and production, it was possible for a relatively small team to develop and optimize in a very efficient way the construction of a new, partly reusable launcher and the associated space capsule. In the case of the Mars mission, there is no indication of what they will do in terms of organization, of how they will scale their methods to accomplish this challenge. For instance, they showed this big composite tank. Nice but how did they build it? The difficulty is to create an industrial robot which is able to loom that for big series while respecting the tolerances required. No word about that. Yet, this is where the feasibility of the project can be assessed. But this is also the heart of SpaceX. I understand that Musk does not want to reveals his trumps.

So, what about this presentation? What is the purpose of it if it is not to present the technical details of the project? In my opinion, there are two goals, one external, one internal.

Externally, you have to create the proper spirit for this kind of expensive endeavor. So this is a classical strategy when you want to sell a project where you know in advance that people are not convinced or concerned: you show far in advanced the most  advanced and incredible version of your project; the first time, people will say he is crazy; the second time, they will say no, the third time: “mmmm”, the fourth time: “why not…” and so on until they completely change their mind and say: “let’s go” and sign the check. People need time to get used to a crazy idea. Very probably, you will not get what you asked for at the beginning, but a limited version which will correspond to what you actually wanted. This is a very effective long-term strategy to fund new experiments. I can completely imagine that it is what Musk wanted to do. People will start to think and rethink and rethink. When the negotiations for the funding will arrive, the ground will be ready and people will be used to the idea. Probably, creating a new civilization on Mars is not really his ultimate dream (on Mars really? why not in Siberia? Or in North Dakota – I am kidding I love North Dakota). If he manages to get a first crew there under the flag of SpaceX, he will have written his mark in the sand of history.  Anyway, his rhetoric must revolve around the idea of colonization and not of exploration to avoid the major counter-argument of manned spaceflights: the robots! If he wants to send people to explore, his opponents will want to send probes which are probably more efficient for this work. But if he wants to create an interplanetary species, there is nothing to oppose: you touch the heart of mankind as a group of settlers.

Internally, the goal is easier to understand: to create the right spirit at work. You do not work on a rocket that sends communication satellites for whichever investment fund. You are working on an interplanetary crewed spaceship. This makes a huge difference. You are part of the conquest of space. In these conditions you can work 24/24 8 days a week.

To conclude, the presentation makes sense in terms of communication strategy, less in terms of feasibility of the concept. If you are not an insider, you have to believe or not. As an outsider, I believe my instincts and my centers of interest: I find chemical propulsion a bit boring 🙂 I admire these massive and loud engines like these old steam locomotives; they are jewels of engineering. But I am more attracted by electric system and other more exotic phenomena. I believe (! I have no way to demonstrate it yet) that there is a huge amount of energy to tap in and that the proper way to engineer them still has to be found. In addition, with cheaper and cheaper earth to orbit transports, it becomes to test riskier technologies. This will be a funny time!


Look to windward

September 27, 2016

I have always been fascinated by the title of this novel by Iain M. Banks, even though I have never really understood the true meaning of it in the story. Whatever, I have this expression in mind now that I am trying to build a team for a project of mine.

And the wind you feel when you are selling your project to potential teammates is not a light breeze grazing the hair, it is a violent hurricane breaking each part your body. Looking to windward is painful.

The project is, in my opinion, not bad: there is a good idea, a potential market and possible long-term developments. And I kept its objectives reasonable and achievable with a modest amount of funding to start with. The technical challenge of developing the software is limited as well.  Thus, it is a nice medium-sized project with a vision, a well-formed pitch, technical feasibility and potential to reach a market.

Yet, what hell it is to find people ready to participate to it. I did not ask for 100%, no, it is not necessary. It can be a side-project at the beginning. But, I get during the discussions all the risks and possible imaginable failures, I am explained the hard competition, the difficulty to get funded, the bugs, the security leaks and other trouble a code can offer. I do not even imagine the reaction if I would propose to start a new SpaceX 🙂

It is incredible how people can be pessimistic. Is it because they care of you and want to prevent you from suffering? Is it animal instinct to escape the danger? I do not know, maybe a mix of these. No wonder that successful entrepreneurs deploy a reality distortion field: it is the only way to deal with the surrounding negativity.

The positive aspect is that you learn to polish the presentation of your project and to improve the counter-arguments. The negative aspect is that I still have not found a soul to share this project with.

The art of science communication

September 20, 2016

If only science was a game only between you and the nature! Alas, it is not simple, our environment is far too complicated to be understood by an individual. Even if the lonely genius Einstein myth persists, the reality is that science, whatever its domain of application, is an endeavor at the scale of humanity. A problem can be address only through cooperation, discussions, disputes. Consequently, the talent of the scientist resides as well in its communicating capabilities as in theoretical and experimental proficiency.

I came to dig a bit more about this topic while reading this article highlighting the need for a simplification of scientific communication. I agree that there is a problem of communication in science, but it may not be due to only the elitist style. If we want to better understand the issue, we have to consider the different types and levels of communication that the scientist has to deal with. The frontier between the different types is rather blurry and depends on the targeted audience and the purpose of the communication. But we can distinguish the following levels.

The first level of communication is the routine communication with his teammates, people working on the same topic and who aim at solving the same scientific problems. It is a highly specialized discussion where use of jargon is recommended to keep a high level of accuracy and avoid misunderstandings. The communication is in this case a mixture of equation writing, drawing, exchange of code and rational discussion. This is a difficult exercise because it is absolutely necessary to be sure that the participants to the discussion will share at the end the same understanding of the problem and of the possible solutions. From experience, a lot of time is lost because of misunderstandings. It is also difficult because the scientist often think that discussion with colleagues is a loss of time at the expense of pure individual thinking.

The second level of communication is the publication: it can be a report, an article, a digital notebook. The purpose here is to communicate in detail the method, the results, the analysis and the conclusions of the work so that your peers can try to reproduce, to falsify, to confirm or to improve your work. Therefore, it has to be clear, accurate and complete. This level is typically what is expected from a scientist. There is a lot of discussion ongoing on the problems of reproducibility, of peer reviewing and of journals impact factors but this is a little bit different story.

The third level of communication is the oral presentation. The purpose here is to attract the attention of the scientific community on your work, either to get collaboration, help, contradiction, funding.  An oral presentation is, by definition, limited in time and thus can focus only on a limited number of points. Therefore it cannot address technicalities. The communication has to highlight some key ideas, it has to activate some triggers in the audience to motivate them to look at your work in more detail (through communication of the second and first level). Honestly, given what I see during conferences this is an exercise which is, most of the time, poorly done. Slides overloaded with plots and texts, no coherent structure, no context explained, no vision. I suspect that most scientists fear that they cannot use storytelling and simple slides without being criticized for lack of rigor. There is a balance to find. A presentation, even a scientific one, has to be compelling.

The last level of communication is the communication with the public. Void. Blank. This is the ultimate difficult exercise. The hell on earth. And it has become worse in the last years. Before, the main contact with the public was through the media and the journalists and only some chosen distinguished scientists were allowed to talk to the journalists. So the difficult exercise of explaining science to a broad audience was to the charge of the journalist. Difficult because you have to find the compromise between the accuracy of the facts and the interest of the public. We touch here the heart of the problem: the scientific method (but not the results!) is fundamentally not attracting. By definition, it is rational and not emotional. Most people expect emotion. There can only be a conflict when we want to communicate about science. Anyway, with the development of Internet and o the social networks, the separation between the public and the scientists has faded out. We are now in position to talk face to face with the audience. And the audience expects a communication with the scientists, it expects him to play a social role, even political one when it tackles the topic of climate evolution or bio-technologies. This is a role for which the scientist is almost not prepared. The difficulty is even greater now that the society faces a problem with the facts. The exact reason for this phenomenon is unclear: the explosion of data, the increased complexity and hyper specialization of science, the degraded education. Whatever it is, people tend to pay less and less attention to facts, data and rational discourse (if you want some proof, listen to some well known politicians; a more in-depth discussion is to be found in Rhys Taylor’s blog). So the scientist is expected to speak out but the type of communication for which he is trained will not be heard. It can only end in a wrong way: either he shows viewgraphs on TV or he will moan “trust me!” (which is the worst thing to say in science). Honestly, I still have no answer to bring as for the behavior to adopt in this case. This is still an experimental ground. But the scientist must enter this ground and communicate with the audience and find strategies to make his voice loud and clear so that the public gets interested in science again.

%d bloggers like this: