Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wiki Design: from Toasters to Spaceships

Participatory Exploration. Frednet. Lunar Boom Town. Open Luna.

These all deal with the concept that we are trying to take the brainpower of the interested public and use it to solve the technical, political, and business problems that confront our efforts to expand into space. I conceived of a tool that can facilitate this.

Look at Wikipedia. According to last year's annual report (check it out in your spare time, Nick,) there were "approximately 100,000 active editors (defined as users who made more than 5 changes in the last month)." 100,000! That's a huge number of people!

With the 11 million articles on Wikipedia, you can be sure that many of these editors are fueled to participate in a wide range of articles by the synergistic combination of articles that they can work on. In other words, editing in Wikipedia gets "sticky" (Check the definitions at the bottom)

So here is the point. Crowd Sourcing is good. Better Crowd Sourcing is better. Better Crowd Sourcing can be had by implementing a dedicated web based methodical structure that fosters and requires attention to the essential questions of systems design.

So I am hatching this idea for something that could be a Wikimedia project, specifically for designing things. It would work a bit like this:

You come to the wiki design sight and tell it that you want to start a new design. It asks you some basic questions like what your primary objective of need is, what kind of system it is (Vehicle, building, processing machine, etc.), Does it require data processing, etc.

The site shepherds your thoughts into a rudimentary top level systems architecture framework by asking you questions like: what does it do? And how might it do that?

It gives you some templates for functional and physical breakdowns, templates with high level headings for a system specification document, and you, the user get as detailed or a vague as you want at this point.

So then your site is live and anyone can come in and populate the content, like with Wikipedia, but unlike Wikipedia, some powerful organizing tools and templates are integrated with the content.

Some of the possible features:
  • Integrated 3D modeling web app that helps with part numbers and hierarchy of parts
  • Expired patent and journal search that lets you link relevant patents to functions or subfunctions
  • Discussion and voting tied to specific elements of the system definition.
  • Commenting on parts of the system definition (Saying things like: "This design is horrible. If it were 3 inches long it would have way more strength and only add a small amount of length")
  • Chat with other members of the project
  • robust and targeted permissions to set "baseline" requirements, functions, components, interfaces, etc
  • Automated quality check that alert users to possible functional overlaps, shortfalls, etc.
  • Autocheck to make sure that users don't give functions titles that are nouns or verbs as titles to items.
  • Freedom of Information Act Request facilitation.
  • Reuse of components, functions, etc from other projects. (Got an idea for something with wheels? Pick from a myriad of projects in which the wheel was defined already!)
The idea is that most people don't know beans about systems engineering, requirements, or interfaces. Design by committee, forum posting, voting, or by blind feel with no knowledge or application of systems engineering is not an effective method of harnessing the domain knowledge that many people do have.

So who is with me? Let's storm the Wikimedia foundation and get them to put this thing online so that we can go about the business of designing space vehicles in style!

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Penny for Your Thoughts, Really, Just a Penny

So I am mentoring this team of interns who are at Boeing for the summer. Their task is to come up with some sweet ideas and see who has the best one.

Straightforward, right?

Well, the space business has had a way of attracting dreamers for over 50 years, and dreamers have a way of coming up with ideas, and so in 2009 it is a little hard to come up with an idea that hasn't already been thought of.

Ask yourself: What was wrong with all the space ideas that people have thought of up until now? Weren't they any good? Why don't we just go work on those, rather than keep coming up with ideas that we think we are the first ones to have thought of (Until we do a little bit of research and find out that it was someone's thesis in 1974.)

So when I asked the interns to start thinking of ideas, I told them that what they really needed to do was think of an idea that would work. An idea that Mother Boeing could plunk down some cash and go do on a reasonable time frame. That's where the real genius could come in on their part.

Hint: The way to go up and down is a gumdrop shaped capsule on top of a rocket with some rubber stuff on the bottom to take the heat when it reenters.

Once upon a time, there was a guy who thought about sending humans to Mars for the first time. I don't know what his name is. I bet that no one does. It's a thought that many people will inevitably have when they look at the sky with a knowledge that there is a place out there called Mars. Was the person who thought of it first a genius? or was he just paying attention.

So the real value doesn't come in until the idea is thunk, in a do-able way, and then it is done. That's where the lasting value is.

You want to send humans to Mars? To the stars? You can't think them there! Get a degree or job in the space business and make it happen! lobby congress, throw down some cash for stock in an aerospace company and vote for board members who will do the best.

Ladies and gentlemen, people tried to fly for a really long time. Da Vinci had the helicopter and hang glider pretty much nailed down a long time ago. A lot of people failed to implement in the interim. We are languishing in the awkward phase of our technology where we have all these great ideas for expanding permanently beyond low earth orbit but we haven't put it all together just right yet.

I suppose that the purpose of this post is to get people thinking differently about how and what it will take to get humans out doing more of the things in space that we all want humans to do (colonize, mine, explore, learn, etc). What is going to help us cross the threshold is thinking of the standard ideas in new ways. It's like you have to know the rules to break them, right? Well, the rules are the ideas that come to our heads naturally when we look up at the stars and imagine how we go there. The ways to break the rules are thinking about politics, human nature, economics, business, and how the laws of these areas can be bent, avoided, or harnessed to enable progress.

Be the change you want to see in the world. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

So for the interns that I am working with, you are coming from a fresh place, hopefully. Take what new things you bring to the table and think of something different, or think of the same thing in a different way. You are approaching the same brick wall that countless brilliant people before you have hit their heads against. Wilbur and Orville weren't necessarily much smarter than Da Vinci, they just thought about things in a different way and pulled together a few technologies that Da Vinci didn't have to succeed in implementing the standard dream of so many who wanted to fly.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Constant of Change

So I'm going to try something new.

I just finished reading Project Orion, by George Dyson, and it has me feeling all political-e. If you havent seen it, I recommend the TED talk by George Dyson to get you started

Project Orion was an amazing and controversial plan to propel spaceships by nuclear bombs. I know, I know, you are thinking of a bunch of ways that that wouldn't work. Well, you are wrong. It would work, and it was studied to death by a bunch of people a whole lot smarter than you and I for a decade in the 50s and 60s and the conclusion is that yep, it would work. And it wouldn't be that expensive.

Because of politics, the effort was killed. That kind of makes sense too, right? Image the political ramifications of blasting spaceships around with nuclear bombs.

Anyway, I felt all sad but motivated when I was done to change the world in a positive way my making the political climate more conducive to space exploration. I'll spare you the details of my whole thought process, but the end result is the following:

I'm going to try to integrate my life, ambitions, and ideas into a more holistic effort. For those of you who don't know me, which is pretty much everyone reading this blog, I like thinking up move script ideas, and although you might doubt it, I actually think that I have some talent with it.

Did you know that Elon Musk produced a movie?

Arther C Clark, after thinking up geosynchronous orbits and some cool GPS applications in the 40s and 50s, made stories and movies

So there go two heroes of mine who have been great visionaries in multiple areas dealing with the advancement of spaceflight in our culture. If they can use their passions to bring compelling stories to the public, why shouldn't I? I think I'll write some scripts over the next few decades for some cool movies that convey compelling messaged wrapped up in a universe where America and Humans are explorers in space.

Business: So I got this minor in Management from BYU. Call me overconfident, but I think that I have a good head for business and fantasize, like a lot of you, about running some company some day that builds spaceships. We will see where my contacts and duties at Boeing take me over time. Way down the road, maybe I can do like Franklin Chang-Diaz and start a cool company based off of an idea, or maybe I can make like Brewster Shaw and run the space exploration division of a huge aerospace firm. Or Maybe I can make like Robert Curbeam and manage a division of a space contractor company.

Space: I'm going to lay it on the line. I'm an astronaut wanna-be. I just finished a Masters Certificate in Space Systems Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, and I'm enrolled in an online masters Degree from University of Southern California in Astronautical Engineering. I'm planning on doing another Masters degree or PhD in Planetary Science from either UCLA or Caltech in January 2011 in Los Angeles, and after that I'm coming home to Houston to sink my freshly sharpened teeth into whatever manned spaceflight programs are happening here. Maybe I'll top off my educational pursuits with a degree in space architecture from University of Houston or an Texas MBA at Houston.

Sometime in there, I'm going to start applying for the astronaut program.

Up till then, I need to run in the mornings, do marathons and triathlons, get scuba certified, probably fix up a Volkswagen minibus, and other things that amazing astronauts seem to always be doing.

My daughter Lucy is 2, and my son is 7 months. I am going to spend tons of time with them and have more kids with my awesome wife.

Church, God, and spirituality is a big part of my life and it is going take up a lot of my time.

And I'm going to start double posting at and
I can have my cake and eat it to, when it comes to which blog should I put my post at. Not all of my posts, of course, but why should I limit myself?

So the point of all this is just to say that I'm going to try and use as a place to integrate a lot of the digital fragments of my life journey. Maybe just living my life passionately and openly can motivate people to be more proactive and positive about the space exploration. Look for sidebars and links to change to be a little more personal.