Privately-launched rockets = cool

In my last post lamenting the state of government activity in the space program, I mentioned SpaceX. Little did I know that shortly after I wrote that post, SpaceX made the first successful launch into orbit by a privately-funded company. WOW!

This is a landmark achievement, and I look forward to seeing more successes from them as they rollout increasingly bigger launch vehicles. (aka, Big-F’in Rockets) If they meet expectations, they will dramatically decrease the cost of launching satellites into space, which is a very good thing. (Dramatically = ~10–25% of current costs!)

Watch history in the making below. (My favorite part is hearing the employees in the background go nuts.)

China in Space — This is BIG!

I personally don’t believe a recent news story has received nearly enough attention: on Saturday, 27 September 2008 a Chinese astronaut made a successful spacewalk from a Chinese craft.

HOLY ****!

Why do I say this?

In less than two years the Space Shuttles are scheduled to be retired, leaving the United States without the capability to get manned missions into orbit. Meanwhile, we’ll be paying the Russians to get to the International Space Station and the Chinese will be progressing toward their stated goal of putting a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

Here’s a quick reminder: the United States went from the first spacewalk to landing men on the moon in 4 years and 1 month. I don’t think there’s anything standing in China’s way from doing the exact same thing. (Though according to Wikipedia their plans aren’t nearly that ambitious time-wise.)

I bring this up because I’m quite concerned about the United States’ competitive capacity and ability to innovate on the governmental level. While smaller firms have seen good success (Scaled Composites with the X Prize/Virgin Galactic, SpaceX with modern launch vehicles) I feel we’re falling behind on major government-level initiatives. That it’s feasible in five years’ time that the United States has to pay Russia just to get into space while China is landing missions on the moon at will is unacceptable. It’s a competitiveness issue and a national security issue, and it needs to be better understood by Americans.

Cambridge MBA — My first week

This last week was an incredibly busy, invigorating, slightly frustrating but incredibly enjoyable week. I’m guessing that it’s pretty much par for the course for a typical MBA program, but it was still great to experience.

First impressions? LOTS and LOTS of information; stacks and stacks of forms, papers, passwords, cards and the like. Doing an MBA in essentially 11.5 months (instead of the US-standard 21 months) means that a LOT of things get compressed. At the end of this week I’m already on my third revision of my CV with the careers department, have signed up for Leadership Dinners with really interesting business leaders that will be visiting campus, and started Economics classes. We’re talking a serious firehose of information here.

A great thing? The people on this course. We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and I’m still running into people every day that I haven’t really talked to. The class of 150 has already split into two streams of 75, and each stream has all of our classes together. I’m also in a study group with 4 other people for this term. There are some incredible people on the course, including a Fellow (aka full Professor) of Medicine here in Cambridge, a professional gambler, a former Goldman Sachs trader, three Army officers (2 British, 1 American) and many, many other interesting people. All told the 150 people in the class come from ~45 different countries. There are even four of us who are University of Michigan alumni! With mixers/drinks/BBQ’s every night this week, we’ve spent some quality time together already.

The University of Cambridge is also a very unique place. Everyone is assigned to one of 31 colleges, and these make for a very unique experience. I’m probably going to be more involved with my college (Jesus College) than many others because I’m going to be rowing with the Jesus College Boat Club. The only problem with this is that each College is where most of the paperwork for you as a student is done. Housing, ID cards, and lots more go through the Colleges, and largely out of any visibility or control from the Judge Business School. What it means is that day to day each person lives a very unique experience as they navigate through the University/College/Business School ecosystem. I had some issues hold me up getting my ID card (just got sorted out today), and also plan to be moving out of my private accommodation into College accommodation next week (a room came up free). With all of this, I’ve spent a lot of time with the Graduate Tutor’s secretary at Jesus!

By the way, the photo below is where I’ll have a room as of next week. Nice place, huh?

Next week classes continue, but they’re largely background foundational classes in Economics. The real heavy classes start the week after that. Next week we continue to get orientated with IT issues (you have NO IDEA how many different logons and passwords I’ve had to enter/change/configure this week), get sorted at our Colleges, and continue to get to know each other. The end of next week finishes with official “Matriculation” events at Jesus College, including a photo of all us grad students in our gowns. But gowns are a topic for another time… (yet another Cambridge tradition/oddity).

Like I mentioned at the top, it’s been a great week, but also looks like it’s going to be an incredibly busy year.

Getting ready for the Singapore F1 Grand Prix

I promise that I’ll post more on my first few days at Cambridge shortly. Suffice it to say that it’s been busy, fascinating, invigorating, but with hints of a typical English paperwork hell.

I just saw this video via the Times Online (the F1 blog) and had to share it. It’s a hilarious parody advert for the McLaren F1 racing team. Apparently the team is getting ready in a rather novel way for the race in Singapore this weekend; the first F1 race to ever take place at night.

Hazards in pushing the envelope

Pushing the envelope can be a very dangerous business. This is even more true in the aerospace industry.

There is a company in California that I have always admired: Scaled Composites. Burt Rutan and his team have built some of the most interesting aircraft ever. (My favorite being the Boomerang.)

Their most high profile project to date was SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize. Scaled made two flights in excess of 100km above the earth (past the edge of space) within two weeks using the same vehicle. It was an amazing feat, and Virgin partnered with them soon after to license the technology and build a space tourism business with Virgin Galactic.

Unfortunately, last summer during rocket motor testing in the development of SpaceShipTwo, an explosion occurred. Three Scaled employees died, and more were seriously hurt in the explosion, including a good friend of mine from University.

Scaled recently posted an update on the accident investigation [PDF] which was quite revealing:

After doing our best to take care of the families and each other, the first order of business was to work with Cal OSHA in its investigation of the accident. Cal OSHA took through the end of January this year to complete its investigation. The agency did not determine a cause for the accident. We are continuing to work with Cal OSHA. In doing so, we hope to support Scaled’s needs as well as the ongoing efforts of others in this developing industry.

You are truly working on the edge of the envelope when such an event occurs and months later no one knows the reason why it happened. Scaled was working with Nitrous Oxide, which is probably one of the safest substances you could use and still turn it into a rocket motor. I’m amazed that the cause wasn’t determined, and hope that the many actions Scaled has taken to prevent future accidents will prove effective.

As I wrote above, pushing the edges of the envelope can be a very hazardous business; unfortunately it’s the only way to truly grow.

RIP Richard Wright: 1943–2008

Richard Wright, the keyboardist for Pink Floyd, died today of cancer.

While I wasn’t part of the generation that grew up with Pink Floyd, I certainly grew up listening to them. (The only album I bought when it first came out was The Division Bell.)

My first honest-to-goodness rock concert was seeing them in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metrodome in 1994. Amazingly, three friends and I managed to get ticket that were in the twelfth row, center stage! And get this… tickets were $30 each. The $60 “VIP” seats were actually behind outs. Since the stage was ten stories tall, the VIP section was moved back, and my buddies and I managed to get some of the best seats in the house. We had to enter from the back of the audience in the dome, and as we walked closer and closer to the stage, we just couldn’t believe our luck.

Oh, and the concert was incredible… it had to be one of the best staged tours I’ve seen, with inflatable pigs, four-story disco balls, a huge movie screen in the middle of the stage, and more. Interesting that the band is from Cambridge, where in a week I’ll be starting school.

Richard Wright was a heck of a musician; I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.

[One of my favorite Floyd songs… though it’s probably one of everyone’s favorites]:

Today’s thoughts

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been reading and re-reading Meditations, the diary/book written by Marcus Aurelius.

Lately I’ve gone back to keeping it in my bag more often and reading bits of it on the Tube/train each day. Every time I read it I’m reminded of things that I want to do in my life. Today’s thought?

Tossing aside everything else, hold fast to these few truths. We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found. […]

-Meditations, Book Three, #10.