Editor's Note: A warm welcome to our newest sponsor, First Resonance! Their ION factory OS is used by manufacturing teams to build, iterate, and track changes from prototype through production. Astute readers will note that Amreeta gives a blog post of theirs a shout-out below; this was her decision and made without knowledge of the impending sponsorship :)
As a slightly dreamy, romantic type, I’m drawn to all the possibilities that science fiction provides. Don’t get me wrong, the engineer part of me appreciates it too – but the dreamer in me is pretty eager to surrender, no questions asked. Enjoying science fiction for the purely sciency, nerdy parts of it misses the point: science fiction is most powerful when interpreted as a parable.
I work in the rocket industry, and unsurprisingly it is full of connections to science fiction – but the relationship between the two is fraught. It can be tempting to think that science fiction predicts the future, but I don’t think that’s the case. In an episode of Tech Won’t Save Us titled Silicon Valley Doesn’t Get Science Fiction, Annalee Newitz suggests that perhaps industrial mimicry comes from entrepreneurs incorrectly assuming that science fiction is talking about the future – when it’s often actually about the present.
My hope is that we as consumers can be a little dreamier, and see beyond literal depictions in the stories we read. I also hope that our world builders exercise greater creativity in architecting our future. And lastly, for you, dear reader, I hope that this short newsletter gives a flavor of infinite possibilities.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was a YouTube channel that publishes a daily mechanism animation. In the Members' Slack, reading Electrify has sparked conversations about cogeneration of heat and power, district heating (like Reykjavík's district geothermal heating), and district cooling (like central Sweden's cooling from stored snow).
Planning & Strategy.
- The aviation industry is trying to converge on the future of air travel: supersonics (like Boom Supersonic and Hermeus, focused on business travelers and defense contracts), or zero-emission air travel (like Wisk and Universal Hydrogen, anticipating stricter regulations on carbon emissions). Dan Rutherford from The International Council on Clean Transportation summarizes some of the political and environmental impacts of the two options, noting that hydrogen powered aircraft will have the additional complexity of bulky cryogenic hydrogen tanks. I would personally be shocked if defense dependent supersonics win out, especially with the currently diminished focus on business travel.
Related: A hot take on electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOLs) vehicles titled Electric Flying Cars Are Just Dirty Old Helicopters, Rebranded.
- The next generation mail trucks are only capable of 8.6 mpg; current Grumman-made LLV trucks average 8.2 mpg. It’s worth pointing out that the new trucks will be able to carry more cargo, but it’s not clear how much more or whether the effective carbon footprint per package is any better.
Making & Manufacturing.
- A fun introductory guide to making multi-layer insulation, those shiny kitchen foil-like sheets on spacecraft and satellites, which are used to protect against thermal radiation. I love this guide because it shows how technical detail as well as hand-craftsmanship is required to make this kind of soft-good; I also love that you could probably buy most of the supplies from Joann’s Fabric store.
- A great interview with Delian Asparouhov of Varda Space Industries on how microgravity allows us to manufacture things in space that can’t be made here on earth.
- A lack of flexibility at the joints in spacesuit gloves was causing too much pressure on astronauts’ finger pads, leading to fingernail delamination - fingernails quite literally coming off fingers. This paper explains how Final Frontier Design’s Mechanical Counter Pressure gloves intended to fix that. These gloves rely on interaction between flexible garment components like zippers, lace, and stretch fabric, and also the mechanical complexity of evenly distributed inflated pockets.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- A brief overview on how to choose the right mechanical tumbling media for surface cleaning and polishing purposes.
- Tesla’s Model 3 owner’s manual on how to unfreeze and open flush-mounted Model 3 door handles during inclement weather. Their guidance is less than elegant, suggesting a lot of WD-40 and using “the bottom of your fist to forcefully bump the door handle.”
- The Soviet-era Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov is an airplane cult favorite, loved for their large cargo capabilities and negative dihedral wings, like that of the An-225. Part of the appeal here is how fundamentally different these are from aircraft built in the West. They haven’t delivered a new aircraft for seven years, but recently the Peruvian National Police ordered an AN-178, and the airframe can be seen here.
Distribution & Logistics.
- An update to Matthew Hockenberry’s Supply Studies syllabus – readings and media relating to supply chains including, but not limited to, all the nuances surrounding reverse sourcing, ethnography, activism, warehouses, and environmental impact.
- My experiences with ERP and CRM systems have only ever been painful - invariably containing mostly inaccurate information and unintuitive user interfaces. That’s why I love this white paper by Karan Talati from First Resonance, which covers how most factory supply chain management software was designed in a time when computers weren’t at our fingertips, and therefore, are almost always hard to navigate, lack actual traceability, and have zero flexibility.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- I recently learned about NASA’s Materials and Processes Technical Information System (MAPTIS), their single-point source for materials properties that anyone can request an account for - regardless of affiliation with NASA. MAPTIS contains data from a range of incredible material property databases for mechanical design and analysis, including Metallic Materials Properties Development and Standardization (MMPDS), the Materials Selection and Analysis Tool (MSAT), and NASA Outgassing Properties.
- Many aerospace companies have made themselves cost competitive by building assemblies out of commercial off the shelf (COTS) parts - components intended for automotive, consumer, or medical use that instead are sent into space. That strategy didn’t seem complex to me until I started working with space hardware and noticed that many (if not most) things behave very differently under the cryogenic temperatures that a lot of space hardware inevitably experiences. Recently I was having some trouble with strain gauge wires in cryogenic temperature and consequently stumbled on this great paper on why certain tin based solder tends to crack when it gets below about -100°C. While COTS parts can save money, sometimes the specialized aerospace equivalents are necessary.
- I love this summary of all the contracts for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). Unlike traditional missions, the CLPS are built, operated and managed by private companies. NASA only dictates landing sites and instrumentation. This results in all the lunar landers having wildly different technical solutions and, respectively, unique architectures and payload capacities. My favorite lunar lander is the Firefly Blue Ghost, naturally because I’m employed by Firefly, but my favorite payload is the palm-sized Yaoki rover that is tentatively flying with Astrobotic.
- A piece on a 3D printed add-on to a PlayStation controller designed to make it accessible for use with one hand.
- One of my favorite podcast episodes of all time, Milk Carton Kids from 99% Invisible, explains how photos of missing children ended up printed on milk cartons.