The commodification of country Western iconography has always fascinated me. Recently the term Space Cowboy, and associated iconography -- shiny cowboy hats and the like -- is everywhere I look. I see it in Lil Nas X and Kacey Musgraves pushing the edge with their sequin cowboy hats, and in my Space Cowboy coworkers singing Neon Moon for karaoke night, covered in torque stripe after a long day working at an aerospace startup in central Texas. Heck, GQ even wrote an article about Jeff Bezos wearing a cowboy hat for his first flight to the Karman Line.
Perhaps with Bezos it's as simple as “when in Texas and when also going to space, be a Space Cowboy” - it ain’t that deep. But many manifestations of Space Cowboy culture explore something greater; they’re less a call back to the past and more a vision for the future. As Spark Magazine wrote in 2019, the attitude surrounding this aesthetic is about taking a risk and boldly following it through. Space Westerns don't have established rules -- they're about living authentically, being fearless, and pushing boundaries. Space is inherently dangerous and Space Cowboys know and accept the risks. For me, my coworkers, and other fellow Space Cowboys, this is an everyday job. And I’m not gonna lie, I kinda love it.
See you later, Space Cowboy 🤠🚀
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was Benign Girl, a toy phone popular for circuit bending. In the Member's Slack, we've been sharing our favorite interview questions and speculating on the impact of electricity quotas rolling out across China.
Planning & Strategy.
- I’m currently reading Test Gods, Nicholas Schmidle’s book about the early years of Virgin Galactic. In the prologue, while comparing Virgin to competitors, Schmidle writes:
But perhaps the most striking distinction boiled down to their belief in the human mind. Blue Origin and SpaceX were run by tech wizards, algorithmic geniuses who trusted in mathematical power to eliminate human error, to one day render fallibility obsolete. Virgin was analog, and despite the futurism of SpaceshipTwo’s mission, the vehicle was relatively simple -- cables and rods, no autopilot, no automation.
Now, I definitely think this book underplays the complexity of SpaceshipTwo and has an inherent negative bias. It critiques many of Virgin’s early, irreversible decisions like developing an air launch vehicle and requiring piloted flight. But I think this judgement can only be made in hindsight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Liftoff by Eric Berger is full of nothing but praise for SpaceX's early founding decisions which similarly hinges on what we know about SpaceX’s success today.
What I like most about Test Gods is the perspective shift of how Virgin’s strategy was edgier and just generally different from most of their competitors, leaving them with a different set of obstacles - many relating to human factors and similar to those of the aviation industry.
- A common critique of the space industry is the argument that space spending is superfluous when earth has plenty of equity issues to solve. That argument, however, is not unique to our modern time; this article takes a look back at similar public dissent during the early days of the aviation industry.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Those little pieces of plastic that lock up your bread bags are basically all produced by one company, Kwik Lok, and they make billions of them every year.
- Thinking about satin, I think of smooth, elegant garments. However, the term satin actually describes a fabric weave structure with four or more wefts (transverse on a loom) floating over a warp (longitudinal on a loom). Satin ceramic matrix composites (CMC) are categorically satin but with the added resin, they aren’t as smooth and drapey as a satin dress.
- A National Geographic video inside the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab that manufactures giant telescope mirrors.
- A neat hack: Using a 15-key, RGB-backlit mechanical macropad to trick out a microwave oven.
- When I first started working in aerospace, everyone would talk about “T.E.C. Sharpies,'' which I assumed meant “Technician Sharpie” when I heard it in conversation. But once I started working on the factory floor, I noticed how “T.E.C.” was spelled and quickly learned that T.E.C stood for Trace Element Certified. It’s a fancy permanent marker that “contains less than 200pm of chlorides and other halogens that can cause stress corrosion on metals such as stainless steel and titanium” which makes it great for aerospace applications.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- A brief (but super fascinating) summary on why trains have conical wheels.
- In my mind, there are two types of bearing enthusiasts - aerospace and skateboard. If you fall in the latter category, check out this super cool wiki of everything about skateboard bearings including parts, bearing ratings, assembly, and care.
- iFixit did a teardown of the iPad Mini that explains why its display sometimes appears to scroll unevenly, with one side lagging slightly behind the other. This is known as jelly scrolling.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A profile of Doris Dev, the industrial design firm behind the product engineering, manufacturing and quality of many of the trendiest direct-to-consumer startups, offers insight into the pros and cons of outsourced manufacturing.
- A neat breakdown of the least American cars based on assembly and subassembly location.
- Ikea chartered an entire ship in response to disruptions in supply chains and an increase in furniture demand. In some markets, up to 10% of their product lines are currently unavailable.
- Regional airlines are lobbying for lower pilot flight-training requirements because the industry is experiencing ongoing pilot shortages. While that may seem like an alarming headline, this article dives into the complexity of the pilot labor market and how a large part of the talent pool took early retirements during the airline industry’s decline at the beginning of the pandemic.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- iRobot Roomba engineers have created “hundreds of models” of poop to train Roombas to identify and avoid it. This allows them to ensure their Pet Owner Official Promise (P.O.O.P.)💩, which guarantees a free return for the new j7+ model if the Roomba runs into (and over) a poop, dragging feces across the floor. Related, I love this video of an off brand robot vacuum trying to fly!
- Wired provided a good history of lifting bodies - aircraft which rely on lift from their fuselages rather than their wings. NASA developed a few iterations in the ‘50s and ‘60s as replacements for space capsules. Their lifting bodies were unstable at low speeds and required detachable sub-modules that the crew could fly during reentry.
- I recently spent a lot of time trying to find cryogenic-rated strain gauges for carbon fiber composite structures (admittedly kind of a niche application), and this 169-page PDF was just the one-stop shop I needed. Vishay’s precision strain gage guide breaks their product line down by grid geometry, material, temperature compensation, and other features.
- Sisters with Transistors is a documentary film about the female pioneers and composers who helped popularize the Moog synthesizer in the 60s and 70s.
- Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle had its first ever launch in September, which I got to watch in person! While the flight didn’t make it to orbit, it was among the coolest experiences of my life. For me, the magnitude of the launch was more than just the thrust of Reaver engines and the scale of the rocket. It was also celebrating the complexities our team had overcome and the intimate spans of time I'd spent with the rocket. And, of course, the gravitas of spaceflight.
I’ve gotten to see first flights for both a commercial airplane and launch vehicle that I’ve worked on and while most of the super special moments in life are made up of little things, sometimes, it’s the big ones 🚀. The launch was live streamed with Everyday Astronaut and you can watch it here.