Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please circulate widely and let me know what you think. This week: Github for hardware, that space telescope you might have heard of, and the one year anniversary of Richard Branson’s trip to space.
One of the reasons we didn’t see this week’s amazing images from the James Webb Telescope sooner? During a vibration test in 2018 to anticipate the rigors of space launch, screws came out of the spacecraft. The cause was a missing specification for the tightening of the screws – and they weren’t tight enough.
Building anything, let alone $10 billion bespoke border detection technology, is a complicated job. Engineers rely on computer-aided design tools to turn their ideas into specifications that can be replicated in the real world, to simulate their behavior, track key data, and feed all that information back to the people building that thing.
Engineers and companies that build hardware like spacecraft, planes and cars are increasingly finding that the tools they currently have are insufficient to do these jobs, especially when compared to the wealth of new tools being used by software engineers. Cloud computing, APIs, and platforms like GitHub allow coders to automate workflows, share modular designs, and notify colleagues of changes in real time.
“The only way to interact with your hardware design is with a mouse, there’s no way to do it through code,” says Jordan Noone, co-founder of rocket maker Relativity Space, who is now partner of the Embedded Ventures fund. Noone is also CEO of a new company that Embeded is backing called KittyCAD, which aims to change that.
KittyCAD is not intended to replace common CAD software created by companies like SolidWorks, Autodesk or Creo, at least not yet. Today, they announce the deployment of an API intended to make these programs more easily automated and interoperable with each other, and with project management software.
For example, Noone describes an engineer who hand designs a custom bolt for a piece of hardware, consults specification manuals, and renders it click by click. In a KittyCAD world, the parameters for that bolt could be defined in code, the design automatically generated, rendered in 2D and 3D with metadata about tolerances and fabrication included, pushed into project management software, and turned into a product order.
Noone and his co-founders, embedded partner Jenna Bryant, chief scientist Jessie Frazelle, and CTO Hannah Bollar, posted a note about the project on GitHub last year. They let me sift through a slew of email responses from frustrated engineers describing their rigged automation attempts and asking for consistent solutions to these issues. Many also had a background in software engineering and knew the divide between the two disciplines.
Lucy Hoag is one of those people. Trained as an astronautical engineer, she worked on spacecraft for DARPA, Google, and Amazon, and led a team of engineers developing self-driving cars at Lyft. His new company, Violet Labs, also aims to create new tools for hardware engineers. She plans to make it work on the APIs built by KittyCAD.
It’s easy to see how this could improve productivity. In a satellite design project, the engineers designing the guidance, navigation, and control systems must obtain key information, such as the spacecraft’s mass and center of gravity, from the design team. its structure. At a former employer, Hoag told me that the exchange of information was mostly done by hand, via email. It took about a month to define the parameters, but according to her, this is an exercise that should take a week.
This may seem like the basic procedural issues that the engineers should have solved. But as with JWST, big projects can be derailed by small problems. Boeing’s troubled Starliner space capsule, for example, missed a problem with the propulsion control software because the configuration data did not match the actual valves and thrusters used by the capsule. To avoid losing the spacecraft during its first flight test, engineers had to retest the software on the ground and patch it in flight. Boeing, which lost nearly $600 million from this and other failures, later admitted it should have caught the problem.
SpaceX, meanwhile, experienced its own software revolution after the explosion of a rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station. In less than two years, it had developed a suite of tools that tracked design drawings and notes through the manufacturing process and automatically pushed design changes throughout the system. It could even spot data entry errors and bad test results. A NASA staff member familiar with these tools said he wished NASA had such systems to design the Space Shuttle.
“I think it’s no surprise that SpaceX, as a company of 10,000 people, has developed some level of automation,” Noone says. “What KittyCAD offers is a toolkit that anyone can use and adopt, at any enterprise scale, without having to develop one themselves, in addition to enabling developers and startups to create tools that others can use.”
There’s a lot of talk in the venture capital world about the need to build more things in the physical realm. If we want robotics, transportation, and energy products to keep pace with software vendors, tools will also have to catch up.
I mean, what did you expect?
I’m sure my readers have already spent time poring over these images, but that’s no reason to stop.
Here are some of my favorite Webb stories, in case you missed them:
- Natalie Wolchover won a Pulitzer Prize for this 2021 deep dive into the history, science and humans behind this telescope; I can’t recommend it enough.
- I’m personally furious with Joshua Sokol for getting incredible behind-the-scenes insight into how these early images were chosen and created.
- One of the most enjoyable duties of journalism is watching people bask in incredible accomplishments. Check out Ken Chang’s profile on Greg Robinson, the project manager who kept the Webb on track.
- Webb’s data link is 25 times faster than Hubble’s, but will still have to share the line with its Deep Space Network sibling.
- We sent a robot instead of a poet, but Barry Petchesky captured my mood about the ancient light we witnessed.
Where is Virgin Galactic going? A year after Richard Branson beat Jeff Bezos to space, the former’s space tourism company seems lost in the desert. A lack of scheduled flights and open technical questions have cast doubt on the company’s financial future, even as the wider space tourism industry seeks to expand.
Death from above. Researchers have calculated that there is a 10% chance of someone being injured by falling rocket parts over the next decade thanks to the steady increase in launches and the still common practice of throwing the spent rocket bodies in the atmosphere. Chinese boosters are the main culprits, but even SpaceX dropped a tank on a farm in Washington state.
Whoops. SpaceX’s massive Starship booster rocket ran into some sort of anomaly during testing this week – and boom. Elon Musk says the vehicle must return to its hangar for analysis, which likely means another delay for the rocket’s highly anticipated orbital test flight.
My test is better. OneWeb, the satellite internet operator, submitted its own study to the Federal Communications Committee arguing that 5G networks planned by Dish, the satellite TV company, will cause interference issues. The fight over the 12GHz spectrum band is heating up after OneWeb and SpaceX flipped their traditional feud to join forces and oppose Dish’s plan.
It’s Vega, baby. Europe’s leading rocket maker, Arianespace, launched the first Vega C rocket during a launch from French Guiana on July 13. from Ukraine.
It was number 142 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your dreams for the next great space telescope, your predictions for the space tourism market, advice and informed opinions to [email protected]