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Credits: SpaceX

 

 

 

Disruptive technology is a very bizarre (and scary) concept, but it is not a bizarre or scary idea. The concept was introduced by Clayton Christensen. In one of his books, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, Christensen proves that, under certain circumstances, companies that do things right can lose their market share or even get out of business. He also presents a set of rules that can help companies capitalizing on disruptive innovation.

 

While I am not trying to give a lecture on economics, I would like to understand how to apply (if possible) the principles of disruptive technologies to the space industry. A very good example is quite at hand… SpaceX.

 

 

We can start by defining the key concepts: sustaining technology and disruptive technology. These are the textbook definitions: A sustaining technology is a new technology that improves the performance of established products, the performance being perceived along the dimensions that mainstream customers value. A disruptive technology is a new technology that brings to market a radical value proposition. They underperform products in mainstream markets, but they have features that are valued by some customers.

 

What is not obvious is that even though disruptive technologies may result in worse product performance in the short term, they can be fully competitive in the same market in the long run because technologies tend to progress faster than market demand.

 

Now let us see what are the 5 principles of disruptive technologies (as defined by Clayton Christensen):

Principle #1: Companies depend on customers and investors for resources (at the end of the day, the customers and the investors dictate how a company spends its money).

Principle #2: Small markets do not solve the growth needs of large companies (large companies wait until small markets become interesting and to enter a small market at the moment when it becomes interesting is often too late).

Principle #3: Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed (there are no established methods to study or to make predictions for emerging markets, as there is no data to infer from).

Principle #4: An organization’s capabilities define its disabilities (we all have our blind spots).

Principle #5: Technology supply may not equal market demand (as established companies move towards higher-margin markets, the vacuum created at lower price points is filled by companies employing disruptive technologies).

 

Why do you think established companies fail to adopt disruptive technologies? Established companies listen to their customers, invest aggressively only in new technologies that provide customers more and better products that they want, and they study their markets and allocate investment capital only to innovations that promise best return. Good management is sometimes the best reason why established companies fail to stay atop their industries.

 

And this is why technology startups can fill in the niche… Many of the good management principles widely accepted are only situationally appropriate. Sometimes it is right not to listen to your customers, right to invest in technology that promise lower margins, and right to pursue small markets. This can happen in a small company, a technology startup where big outside stakeholders are not vested, and where new technology development is the big drive.

 

Now that the lecture has been delivered, it is time to ask the questions. Why is SpaceX perceived as disruptive? Is SpaceX really disruptive? In what way?

 

The declared goal of SpaceX is to make space more accessible, that is to bring the kg-to-LEO prices down. If you have a basic knowledge of launch systems, you know that the propulsion technology employed today is pretty much the same used by Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs: liquid fuel rocket engines. The Russian Soyuz, for which the basic rocket engine design has not changed much since the Semyorka days, is a living proof that rocket engineers do not want to fix things that work well. While aerospike engines and nuclear rocket engines make the front page from time to time, the good old liquid fuel expansion nozzle rocket engines will be here to stay for a long time.

 

Given the circumstances, how to bring the manufacturing and launch costs down? As a software engineer who spent a number of years in a software startup, I can recognize a number of patterns… First, Musk knows how to motivate his engineers. Doing something cool is a big driver. I know that. And working on a space launch system than one day may put the first human colonists on Mars must be a hell of a motivator.

 

Modular design… software engineering principles are at work. Build reliable components and gradually increase the complexity of your design. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, are built on a modular design that has at the core the Merlin 1D engine. And an important detail to mention here, SpaceX builds the hardware in-house. Obviously, outsourcing would increase the manufacturing costs.

 

If you are familiar with the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle, you will acknowledge that Musk has borrowed proven (and cheaper) technology for Falcon launch vehicles: LOX/RP-1 as fuel, vernier thrusters, and horizontal integration for the first stage, second stage, and the Dragon spacecraft. These choices simplify the overall design and bring the costs down substantially.

 

To put it the way SpaceX many times did: “simplicity, reliability, and low cost can go hand-in-hand.”

 

One thing to notice is that the most important innovation introduced by SpaceX is in the design and manufacturing process, which is in-house and as flat as possible. Rearranging the pieces of the puzzle can often give the competitive advantage. Lean and mean is the new way.

 

SpaceX is not just trying to bring down the launch prices, it is actually trying to disrupt the status quo… and this makes the battle harder. SpaceX dixit: “SpaceX’s goal is to renew a sense of excellence in the space industry by disrupting the current paradigm of complacency and replacing it with innovation and commercialized price points; laying the foundation for a truly space-faring human civilization.”

 

When developing the theory around disruptive technologies, Clayton Christensen has studied the hard disk drive and the mechanical excavator industries. The US space industry is a different ecosystem. Do the 5 principles presented above need adjustment?

 

Not really. Principle #1 is valid and applies in this case as well. Self-funded SpaceX followed a market strategy not dictated by customers or investors. The small payload launcher market, targeted by SpaceX with Falcon 1 and Falcon 1e, was an area neglected by established space companies as Principle #2 states. Principle #3 explains why established companies have neglected the small payload market.

 

Does mastering the small payload launcher technology qualifies one to enter the heavy launcher market? SpaceX managed to overcome Principle #4. Will SpaceX retire its Falcon 1 launch vehicles and leave the small launcher market for good? In this case, I would see Principle #5 as a warning. While the heavy launchers offer better profit margins, would it be a smart move to leave an emerging market (currently) offering low profit margins? This remains to be seen.

 

 

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Credits: NASA/CSA

 

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will take command of the station during the second half of his third space mission. Hadfield will launch aboard a Soyuz rocket in December 2012, and spend six months on the station as part of the crew of Expedition 34/35. He will return to Earth in a Soyuz capsule in June 2013.

 

Hadfield is the only Canadian to board the Russian Mir space station, in 1995, during his first space flight, while he served as Mission Specialist 1 on STS-74. He is also the first Canadian mission specialist and the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit.

 

 

His second space flight was onboard STS-100, where he served as Mission Specialist 1. STS-100 was the International Space Station assembly flight 6A, which delivered and installed the Canadarm-2 on the station. During this mission, Hadfield performed two spacewalks.

 

Chris Hadfield also served as Director of Operations for NASA at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia; as Chief of Robotics for the NASA Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; as Chief of International Space Station Operations; and as the Commander of NEEMO 14, a NASA undersea mission to test exploration concepts living in an underwater facility off the Florida coast.

 

The official announcement was made by the Canadian Space Agency. Chris Hadfield’s biography is also available here.

 

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01-10-10

Arianespace 30th Anniversary

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Credits: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Optique vidĂ©o du CSG, L. Boyer

 

 

Arianespace was founded in 1980. With twenty-four shareholders from ten European countries (among which CNES holds 34% and EADS 30%), Arianespace is the world’s first commercial space transportation company.

 

The workhorse of Arianespace has been the Ariane launch vehicle.

 

Five versions of Ariane have served the company so far: Ariane 1, with the first successful launch on December 24, 1979, Ariane 2, launched for the first time on November 20, 1987, Ariane 3, starting its service on August 4, 1984, Ariane 4, launched on June 15, 1988, and Ariane 5, with the first successful flight on October 30, 1997.

 

 

The first launch of Ariane 5, a.k.a. Flight 501, ended with the vehicle being destroyed by its automated self-destruct system, after the high accelerations caused the inertial guidance system to crash. The crash was caused by, I quote, one of the most infamous computer bugs in history. If you like, you can take a look at the Ada code that caused the malfunction. But enough with the dark memories, this is an anniversary after all…

 

Since its inception, Arianespace has signed over 300 contracts that resulted in more than 277 satellite launches. According to Arianespace, Ariane launchers have delivered more than half of all commercial satellites now in service. The year 2009 was a very successful year for Ariane 5. The launcher orbited nine commercial satellites, the Herschel space telescope, the Planck scientific observatory, and the Helios 2B observation satellite. Ariane 5 has proven to be a versatile launch vehicle, capable of handling a wide range of missions.

 

The challenges for 2010 are many, as Arianespace is planning up to seven Ariane 5 launches. Two new launch vehicles will join Ariane 5 as part of the Arianespace family of launchers: the Vega small launcher and the Soyuz medium launcher.

 

You can read more about Arianespace, its mission, and the solutions provided to customers around the world on the Arianespace website.

 

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11-19-09

Soyuz Update

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Credits: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2009

 

 

Arianespace is getting closer to the first Soyuz launch from Kourou, in French Guyana.

 

On November 7, 2009, two Soyuz launchers were loaded on MN Colibri, which transports them from Russia to French Guyana. The journey of the two Soyuz 2-1A launchers from St. Petersburg to Kourou takes two weeks.

 

Each launch vehicle is loaded in ten containers, which hold the four first-stage strap-on boosters, the Block A core stage, the Block I third stage, the Fregat upper stage, and the Soyuz 2-1A ST-type payload fairing. MN Colibri is also carrying the refined kerosene propellant used by the boosters, the Block A and Block I stages, as well as the unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and the nitrogen peroxide (N2O4) needed to fuel the Fregat upper stage.

 

 

The Soyuz launch site at Kourou is in its final stage of construction. While sharing common features with the cosmodromes at Baikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk in Russia, the launch site at Kourou will have a fifty-two meter tall mobile gantry, which will be used for vertical payload integration and final pre-liftoff processing.

 

If you ask yourself how safe is Soyuz, it has been in production since 1957, continuously upgraded, and has more than 1,740 successful launches on record to date. Soyuz will become the medium-size launcher in the Arianespace family of launch vehicles. Taking advantage of the low latitude of the European spaceport, Soyuz will be able to deliver three-ton payloads to geostationary orbits.

 

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Credits: Arianespace

 

An updated version of the Soyuz launch vehicle will liftoff at the end of the year from the European Spaceport at Kourou in French Guyana.

 

Soyuz will complete the range of launchers operated by Arianespace, which already includes the Ariane 5, with the Vega small launcher soon to come.

 

 

The construction of the Soyuz site in Guyana has reached a major milestone: the construction of the launch system has begun. The launch system supports and services the launch vehicle when it is erected for liftoff.

 

The concrete launch pad supports a multi-segment steel ring inset (known as the support crown). Two umbilical masts have also been positioned on top of the support crown. The masts, together with four support booms, will keep the launch vehicle in position on the launch pad. The two towers visible at the launch site will protect the Soyuz vehicle from lightning strikes.

 

Credits: Arianespace

 

One interesting detail about the launch site is that the support crown is fixed on the launch pad, in contrast to the launch pads built for Soyuz in Russia and Kazakhstan, as the updated Soyuz operated from Kourou is able to manage the launch azimuth during ascent.

 

You can read more about the Kourou Spaceport on the Arianespace website.

 

 

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Credits: NASA/RASA

 

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is a high-energy particle detector. AMS will detect electrons, positrons, protons, antiprotons, and nuclei in cosmic radiation.

 

AMS is a cooperative project that involved more than 200 scientists from 31 institutions and 15 countries. The data gathered by AMS during its three-year mission will help scientists answer important questions about antimatter and invisible mass in the Universe. AMS could detect many types of particles predicted by theorists and determine their astrophysical sources.

 

 

AMS could reveal to scientists unusual astrophysical objects like antimatter galaxies, dark matter, strangelets, microquasars, and primordial black holes.

 

AMS actually refers to two particle experiments: AMS-01 and AMS-02. AMS-01 flew in low Earth orbit (LEO) with Space Shuttle Discovery STS-91 in June 1998. AMS-01 was an AMS prototype (a simplified version of the spectrometer) and was used to test particle physics technology in LEO. AMS-02 is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer designed to be mounted and operated on the ISS.

 

Credits: NASA

 

AMS-02 is a cube-shaped structure with a mass of 6,731 kg. The spectrometer consists of a huge superconducting magnet and six specialized detectors, and requires 2,000 watts of power.

 

The experiment has a 10Gb/sec internal data pipeline and will have a dedicated 2MB/sec connection to ground stations. AMS-02 will gather approximately 200 TB of scientific data during its mission. Four 750 MHz PowerPC computers running Linux will provide the computing power.

 

The spectrometer also contains two star tracker cameras, which detect the orientation in space, and a thermal control system that will control the temperature of the whole experiment. The thermal control system is quite complex. Heat is collected from the detectors and the magnet, and then pushed through conductors to the radiators mounted on the outside of the AMS and radiated into space.

 

 

AMS-02 has a little bit of history associated with it … due to the Space Shuttle accidents, which reduced the number of orbiters available, and the decision to retire the Space Shuttle fleet, AMS-02 faced cancellation (a long list of elements meant to be part of the ISS were cancelled for the same reasons). Because an additional shuttle flight was added to the launch manifest, most likely AMS-02 will make it to the space station.

 

The plan for AMS-02 is that it will be attached to the zenith side of the S3 section of the Integrated Truss Structure on the ISS. A Payload Attachment System will be used to keep the spectrometer in place on the truss segment.

 

Credits: NASA

 

According to the missions schedule, AMS-02 will be installed on ISS as part of the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-134 mission, together with the last ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC-4), in late 2010.

 

STS-134 will be the last Space Shuttle flight before the deadline set to end Space Shuttle operations on September 30, 2010.

 

 

To make things more interesting (and Space Shuttle operations cheaper), it has been proposed that the last mission should end through a destructive re-entry. In this scenario, the reduced crew of three will remain on the space station and return to Earth onboard Soyuz spacecraft.

 

You can read more about AMS-02 on a dedicated web page at MIT. There is also a web page dedicated to AMS-02 at CERN.

 

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