Monday, August 04, 2008

Spacex and Hardware is hard.

This weekend I spent Saturday afternoon glued to my computer watching the drama that is a spacex launch. The Launch once again proves that hardware is hard.

When he started SpaceX Elon had never managed a company that builds hardware. Elon is a really really smart guy and he will  learn to build hardware, it just won’t be as quick or as superior to dinospace as the original power point slides said it would be .  I visited spacex about two years ago. The Staff was very young, a lot of fresh out of college  enthusiastic kids. It was probably the brightest group of pure brain power I’ve ever encountered.   Elon created a vision that was bright enough to attract 100’s of the best and brightest to actually get their hands dirty and build real hardware. They choose spacex and not web 2.0 or  wall street.  SpaceX now has 500 + employees and as these bright young minds learn to build real hardware they will become an invaluable national asset.  I hope they can get up and try again and again, it may take another 5 years until the organization learns what really matters and what doesn’t. Just don’t give up, I for one will enjoy watching them succeed.  If I could give them one piece of advice it would be to  remember to play a little bit along the way. The spacex director of propulsion Tom Muller not only used to work on rockets professionally, he built rockets as a hobby. Tom used to build and fly small liquid propellant rockets out at the RRS. This lesson should not be lost , things one builds with ones own hands teach valuable lessons that are not to be found in any text book.

This was also a sad week for another Software guy builds hardware story. Vern Raburn was Microsoft employee #18, he was very successful at Microsoft. 10 or so years ago he started Eclipse aviation and set out to turn general aviation on its head. He planned to build thousands of light jets sell them for less than 1M and change transportation as we know it. It did not turn out to be as quick or as superior as the original power point slides said it would be. When Vern started there were no very light jets, today there is the Citation Mustang, The Eclipse 500, and soon to be offerings from Diamond, Embrair, Piper, Cirius and others. Vern changed general aviation, he just won’t be running eclipse any longer, he was recently replaced as eclipse CEO.

Hardware is hard is a lesson I’ve been learning for a long time. My very first full time job out of college was for an 8a set aside minority owned business. The  company had been quite successful doing paper research reports.  The president of the company kept seeing RFQ’s go by his desk to build hardware he thought “we can do this”. The company went from 0 to 40M in sales in 4 years, it went from 40M to zero in 12 months. It imploded when all the hardware jobs had huge cost overruns.  

You can see the same scenario repeat itself over and over.. John Carmack started Armadillo 8 or so years ago. The armadillo team has learned to build low cost robust hardware, but its taken years, they had to re learn lessons that every hardware builder must learn.

My final thoughts:

  • Build and fly more, simulate less.

  • In simulation plumbing never leaks.

  • In simulation things never catch fire.

  • Simulated parts never have defects.

  • Simulated parts always meet their data sheet specifications.

  • In simulation your are never told that  we are out of the letter ‘a’ more ‘a’s will not be available for 6 weeks. best to brush up on your other vowels.


Anonymous said...

So very true. Paper and simulation are nice but until you build it, it is all just guesswork.

Anonymous said...

But if you can simulate a failure you saw in hardware, that's a combination that can't be beat.

heroineworshipper said...

Not sure there's anything unique about Musk or any other celebrity CEO which any underling couldn't do, given the same connections.

jatkins said...

They call it hardware for a reason. :) That's what drew me to software. Then I realized that you can't make rockets and spacecraft out of software.

Totally true. And as for SpaceX, well, I watched every second of it, but unfortunately for me my time zone's UTC+1. So I was watching solidly from the start until the video feed cut, then waited about two hours to hear more news.

But Elon Musk is a great guy, and I'm sure SpaceX will succeed. Heck, they're launching again in a few months.

Anonymous said...

Hardware never gets easy, technological change sees to that! I've been building rockets and spacecraft for about 40 years now and you always get unexpected or at least, unforeseen failures. Hopefully you don't get the same failure twice! That suggests incompetence.

People from all walks of life will achieve spaceflight and they will enjoy the success. It's easy to criticize, not so easy to go out there and do things. More power to those that try.