Product launches are festive occasions, but it’s rare to attend one so joyful that it moves the crowd to tears. And yet, a fleet of aviation honchos—Bombardier Inc. CEO Pierre Beaudoin, aerospace division CEO Guy Hachey, commercial aircraft president Mike Arcamone, Porter Airlines CEO Bob Deluce—all admitted that the takeoff last Sept. 16 of the first aircraft in Bombardier’s new CSeries line of planes had them choked up. “My heartbeat was going quite fast as I watched,” blubbered Hachey afterward, flashing a mile-wide, white-toothed smile. “I had lot of thoughts in my mind about how long we have been working at this, and how important it’s going to be for the future of the company.” … The CSeries has been designed from scratch and conceived with cutting-edge technology. It is without precedent: an ultra-lightweight, ultra-quiet, ultra-fuel-efficient commercial airliner that can reach near-transcontinental distances from a measly 4,000 feet of runway.
Many of you might have already heard about the fantastic book recently published on the Wright Brothers (Wilbur and Orville) by David McCullough. This is the first full audio book I have listened to (I am trying to work audio books into my schedule as a way to get through the many books I’d like to read) and the account really lives up to expectations.
What I find truly fascinating is how seemingly out of nowhere two “untrained” bike mechanics, although diligently self-educated, could ring in a completely new era for humanity. The conditions in which they were brought up (with a lot of strong family support), self-discipline, ridicule they endured from naysayers and the pain they felt through family tragedies, and their endless curiosity put together with “workingest” men some had ever known became a recipe for success.
Of course the “discovery” of manned flight still speaks to the idea that breakthroughs come based on a multitude of smaller discoveries over time, but it’s still amazing to think (and read/hear) about how the invention came to be. McCullough’s prose is clear and he crafts a suspenseful tale leading the reader toward the incredible invention of manned flight.
The lessons I'll try to take away are that...
... having an interest and curiosity in a great number of subjects can bring about insights that might seem obvious in hindsight – the brothers read a vast number of books on varying subjects
... there is no substitute for working hard and if you do your homework, naysayers are more easily dismissed – another way of saying this is to have ambition, resolve, drive and determination - there is no substitute for practice
... don’t take for granted the amazing inventions that we have at our disposal today
... true advancements have similar pre-existing conditions – building upon smaller iterations leads to leaps in innovation, but they can come from anywhere or anyone
... the principles of engineering are vital – Wilbur and Orville only added an engine after solving the ability to fly consistently
Most of these insights are obvious but analyzing instances where conditions have produced success , over and over, in different fields, builds confidence in trying to accomplish something great in whatever a person decides to pursue.
“The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge than more power.” Wilbur and Orville Wright, March 12, 1906.
Here’s the funny thing about space: Ask people what they think about it and you’ll get every kind of answer. We should colonize Mars! We should stay home! We should look for life! Space, really, is a giant Rorschach. Into it we send rockets and satellites and space stations. But more than that, we send beliefs. About what is meaningful. About what is possible. About what is inescapable. ... space is back. Musk, Branson, Bezos. Each pursuing a pet project: Build reusable rockets and ultimately colonize Mars. Send ultrarich tourists on the world’s most expensive roller coaster. Mine asteroids. NASA, meanwhile, keeps plugging away at its science and robots. ... It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of it—there’s no focus. Yet the pace of space news keeps accelerating like a hailstorm on a roof. ... Spend time in New Mexico and you start to hear about the two space ages. The first is all Goddard and von Braun and big, lumbering, one-off rockets the size of skyscrapers that are built by big government and the military-industrial complex for hundreds of millions of dollars so we can send a tiny group of humans to the moon. The second space age is all about you. And it’s all about something you hear a lot these days—that the “barrier to entry” is now low enough that soon, to paraphrase Elwood Blues, you, me, them, everybody will get to space. ... I feel we’re back where the US space program was in the days of Ham. Hokey as it sounds, yes, this is the dawn of the second space age. And we are in a moment when we are struggling to figure it out. The good news is it’s not just NASA working the problem.
Immune Engineering: Genetically engineered immune cells are saving the lives of cancer patients. That may be just the start.
Precise Gene Editing in Plants: CRISPR offers an easy, exact way to alter genes to create traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
Conversational Interfaces: Powerful speech technology from China’s leading Internet company makes it much easier to use a smartphone.
Reusable Rockets: Rockets typically are destroyed on their maiden voyage. But now they can make an upright landing and be refueled for another trip, setting the stage for a new era in spaceflight.
Robots That Teach Each Other: What if robots could figure out more things on their own and share that knowledge among themselves?
DNA App Store: An online store for information about your genes will make it cheap and easy to learn more about your health risks and predispositions.
SolarCity’s Gigafactory: A $750 million solar facility in Buffalo will produce a gigawatt of high-efficiency solar panels per year and make the technology far more attractive to homeowners.
Slack: A service built for the era of mobile phones and short text messages is changing the workplace.
Tesla Autopilot: The electric-vehicle maker sent its cars a software update that suddenly made autonomous driving a reality.
Power from the Air: Internet devices powered by Wi-Fi and other telecommunications signals will make small computers and sensors more pervasive.
Igor Pasternak started thinking about airships when he was twelve. Back then, in the nineteen-seventies, he loved rockets. One night, he was curled up in the soft green chair that doubled as his bed, in the two-room apartment where he lived with his parents, his little sister, and his grandmother, in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine. He was reading a magazine aimed at young inventors, and he came across an article about blimps. He saw old photographs of imposing wartime zeppelins and read about another kind of airship, which had never made it off the drawing board: an airship that carried not passengers but cargo. It would be able to haul hundreds of tons of mining equipment to remote regions in Siberia in one go, the article said—no roads, runways, or infrastructure needed. Just lift, soar, and drop. ... A blimp is just one type of airship, usually a small one, and always nonrigid, meaning that it has no structural hull; its shape is maintained by the pressure of the lifting gas within. It’s basically a balloon with a rudder and a means of propulsion. The first one was built in 1852, by the French engineer Jules Henri Giffard; it was a hundred and forty-four feet long, with a propeller and a three-horsepower steam engine. In 1900, in Germany, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin built something much larger and stronger, adding a rigid aluminum framework—long internal girders, attached to flexible rings, that formed a kind of rib cage. A number of discrete cells, each filled with hydrogen, fit inside the rib cage, and the entire ship was covered with fabric. The first of these, the LZ 1, was four hundred and twenty feet long, and Zeppelin kept making them bigger. He started the world’s first airline company, DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft), and by 1914 the service had made more than fifteen hundred flights, transporting upward of ten thousand people. Before long, Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries began building airships.
Drones—or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), as they are known in the military—have quickly become one of the Pentagon’s tools of choice for precision surveillance and attack, and Holloman is responsible for training new pilots and sensor operators in order to meet swelling demand. This year the base will produce 818 RPA operators, more than double the number of projected F-16 trainees. All told, over 20,000 military and civilian personnel are currently assigned to the RPA program, representing nearly 5% of the Air Force's total capability. ... Base and squadron commanders say the RPA program is on track to become one of the Air Force’s largest divisions. In fact, for the first time ever, drones were responsible for more than half of the weapons dropped by the U.S. on Afghanistan last year. New recruits and pilots transferring to the drone program from other aircraft all pass through Holloman, sooner or later. ... If the pilot of popular mythology is intuitive and independent, the pilot of the RPA era must be analytical and collaborative. He (or sometimes she) must be comfortable multitasking, effective at communicating within and across teams, and capable of continually learning on the job. He or she may have a family to support, and the desire to be present at Little League games and piano recitals. ... Indeed, the daily reality for RPA pilots, as well as sensors, stands in stark contrast to the Maverick of myth. ... The new Maverick represents the future of work in a fully global world dominated by complex machines, complex communications, and fluid, remote teams.
The Hubble takes advantage of its position 360 miles above the surface to gather information that would be absorbed by the atmosphere. It sees mainly in the visible part of the spectrum, extended slightly into the near infrared and ultraviolet. But there is much information about the Universe that is invisible even to the Hubble Space Telescope—and that's where NASA's much hyped, two-decades-in-the-making, $8.8 billion-plus James Webb Telescope comes in. ... In space, no one can hear you scream, and there's precious little to taste or feel. We get some data from the flux of various particles, but most of what we know about the cosmos comes in the form of light. Some of this light falls in the visible part of the spectrum and forms the images brought to us by optical telescopes. These range in quality from nearly all amateur hardware to the orbiting Hubble. ... But there are crucial insights hiding in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well. The collection of microwave data led to the analysis of the cosmic microwave background, verifying key elements of the Big Bang model. The search for forming planets and advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is carried out using radio astronomy. ... The infrared part of the spectrum, just as the others, carries unique types of information. We’ve known for a long time that our Universe is expanding and that the farther away something is, the faster it is receding from us. The velocity of light in a vacuum is always the same, so its color is shifted if there is a relative velocity between us and its source. If we are moving closer together, the spectrum is shifted toward smaller wavelengths, a so-called blue shift. And if the source of light is moving away from us, its spectrum is shifted toward longer wavelengths: a red shift.
Starting in September 2015, people in the city noticed more planes flying in and out of the airport, loading and unloading those black-wrapped boxes. This March, Amazon announced that it was leasing 20 Boeing 767s from Air Transport Services Group, a cargo company that operates out of the air park. Amazon had also negotiated an option to buy nearly 20 percent of the company. ... Two months after the Ohio announcement, Amazon leased 20 more jets from Atlas Air, an air cargo company based in Purchase, N.Y. Amazon has also purchased 4,000 truck trailers. Meanwhile, a company subsidiary in China has obtained a freight-forwarding license that analysts say enables it to sell space on container ships traveling between Asia and the U.S. and Europe. In short, Amazon is becoming a kind of e-commerce Walmart with a FedEx attached. ... Amazon’s ambitions depend on the continued success of its Prime service. For $99 a year, Amazon Prime customers get two-day delivery at no extra charge. Those who sign up tend to spend almost three times as much as their non-Prime peers. The company zealously guards its numbers, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimates that Amazon had 63 million Prime members as of late June—19 million more than the year before.
One afternoon this spring at the United Nations in Geneva, I sat behind Wareham in a large wood-paneled, beige-carpeted assembly room that hosted the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a group of 121 countries that have signed the agreement to restrict weapons that “are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately”— in other words, weapons humanity deems too cruel to use in war. ... The UN moves at a glacial pace, but the CCW is even worse. There’s no vote at the end of meetings; instead, every contracting party needs to agree in order to get anything done. (Its last and only successful prohibitive weapons ban was in 1995.) It was the start of five days of meetings to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS): weapons that have the ability to independently select and engage targets, i.e., machines that can make the decision to kill humans, i.e., killer robots. The world slept through the advent of drone attacks. ... Yet it’s important to get one thing clear: This isn’t a conversation about drones. By now, drone warfare has been normalized — at least 10 countries have them. ... LAWS are generally broken down into three categories. Most simply, there’s humans in the loop — where the machine performs the task under human supervision, arriving at the target and waiting for permission to fire. Humans on the loop — where the machine gets to the place and takes out the target, but the human can override the system. And then, humans out of the loop — where the human releases the machine to perform a task and that’s it — no supervision, no recall, no stop function. The debate happening at the UN is which of these to preemptively ban, if any at all.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
JPL, home to three thousand engineers and five hundred scientists, is very old—2016 is its eightieth anniversary—but it's only in the last few years that the close of the space shuttle program has left enough of an excitement gap for the center's singular brilliance to shine through. In contrast to NASA's other outposts, where you'll find a lot of unflappable pilot types with high-and tight haircuts, JPL is full of strange, excitable, idea people. Climate scientists who work side gigs as comedians and engineers who shave star shapes into their Mohawks before landings. ... Just off California Interstate 210, there are two signs on the side of the road. The bottom one shows an outline of the California mule deer that tend to meander out of the sagebrush and into passing traffic. The top one just says "Space," with an arrow pointing forward. The second sign is not an official JPL sign. No one really knows where it came from. People around here presume it was put there as a joke and no one ever bothered to take it down. ... Even though JPL is currently beholden to its parent organization's budgets and approvals, it is actually the reason NASA exists. ... The best way to understand what JPL does is to consider the center's "directorates," which is space-agency-speak for departments. Among these are four organized by planet. Taken together, they sound like a particularly difficult round of Jeopardy: Earth Science, Astrophysics, Mars, and Planets That Are Not Mars.