Happy Space Year

News and commentaries, Technology

Happy holidays and all that but let’s talk rockets, shall we? More specifically, let’s talk SpaceX’s historic vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL)* of Falcon 9 on Sunday, December 21. The questions and comments have centered largely around who really is first to do VTVL (Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing) – Bezos’ Blue Origin or Musk’s SpaceX.

Blue Origin 

When I first heard of Blue Origin’s launch and landing, I didn’t even bother to check out the video because I thought SpaceX’s Grasshopper have done that already. I’m actually wrong, Grasshopper did eight successful VTVLs but the maximum height it reached was 744 m (2,440 ft) before it was retired.

So, For the category of VTVL rocket to reach space and successfully land, then yes, Blue Origin is the first of its kind. But when Jeff Bezos tweeted:

A lot of people, including me, was incredulous. What club? Because SpaceX right now is on a league all its own.

Space vs. orbit
First of all, where does “space” begin?

Earth's atmosphere

Conventionally, the Kármán line at 100 km (62 mi) above sea level is used to define the beginning of outer space. And Blue Origin did breach space, reaching an altitude of 100.5 km before descending back to Earth.

But putting something into orbit is an entirely different kind of animal. First of all, the rocket does not just shoot straight up, it goes up and then goes sideways really, really fast after reaching a certain altitude. XKCD has done a great explainer on space vs. orbit here.

SpaceX Falcon 9 vs. Blue Origin’s Shepherd

  • Speed – In order to for a rocket to go into orbit and to stay there, it has to reach horizontal speed of ~8 km/s. The International Space Station hovers above Earth at 330-410 km and it goes around the world every 90 minutes at a  speed of 27,000 km/h or 7.5 km/s. SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage (the booster and the one landed) reached a max speed of around ~5,900 km/h while the second stage (the one that put the payload into orbit) reached a max speed of ~25,990 km/h**. Blue Origin reached a maximum speed of ~3,700 km/h.
  • Fuel – Obviously, in order to achieve those speeds, the engines would need a LOT of fuel. In the case of SpaceX Falcon 9, the first stage booster not only need enough fuel to shoot the rocket into space, it needed enough fuel to reorient to come back down to earth, slowdown from its crazy speed, and maneuver to land in an upright position.
  • Size and weight – SpaceX Falcon 9, at 70 m high, not only had to shoot the rocket into space and go into orbit, it had to carry a payload (or cargo) into space, in this case 11 satellites for ORBCOMM. Blue Origin’s New Shepard had no payload at all.

Space race is heating up
Now that we have that cleared up, it is great to see private companies focusing on space. Competition will yield the best technologies and the best practices and also prod the incumbents into action. And that is already happening.

An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this month appropriates ~$55M and instructs NASA to develop a “prototype deep space habitation module” no later than 2018. It also requires NASA to submit a status report to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment which could be early 2016.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s accomplishment could push Russia to reassess the costs of their own projects in order to maintain market share. The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space and Security, uses Russian-built engines for most of its rockets. On December 23, 2015, the ULA announced that it had ordered 20 RD-180 engines to power up to 20 launches of the Atlas V rocket.

So, here’s to a wonderful 2016 and to hopefully more space exploration. And let me leave you with this: 

* VTVL is a term used for a form of takeoff for rockets, not to be confused with VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) for aircraft – helicopters, fixed wing aircraft like the Harrier.
**Speed taken from SpaceX launch video

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High tech utopia vs. reality and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

Rocket launch and robots – with these two things happenings this week, I am once again struck with how the future is very much here. But the road to getting there is far from smooth. Even as tech companies like Google race against traditional car companies to produce a self-driving car, a recent Senate report discusses the security dangers of connected cars. Meanwhile the path to a reusable rocket was derailed by the most natural of elements – rough seas with waves reaching three stories in height. Finally, unless we can teleport materials or 3D print everything from emails (and even if we can, we still need raw materials), we still have to contend with port shutdowns such as the one happening right now in the US West Coast ports amid labor disputes. The last prolonged shutdown was in 2002 and cost an estimated $1B a day.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Radar trouble and high winds plague SpaceX Falcon 9’s two tries at launch; finally launches on Wednesday but nixes ocean platform landing due to rough seas
  2. Google-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics debuts “Spot”, a robot that stays upright even when repeatedly kicked
  3. IBM’s Watson to learn Japanese in partnership with telecommunications company Softbank
  4. Apple is investing $850M on a solar farm that will power its new headquarters
  5. Acquisitions/Mergers: Yelp buys online food delivery service Eat24 for $134M; Expedia to buy rival Orbitz for $1.34B

In retail:

  1. Alibaba Group’s AliExpress to enter Indonesia’s e-commerce market  invests in smartphone; Group also invests $590M stake in smartphone maker Meizu Technology Co.
  2. eBay will send off Paypal with $5B in cash as part of spinoff details
  3. Pinterest is reportedly adding a buy button, feature may roll out within 6 months
  4. Hugo Boss’ biggest shareholder Permira further reduces stake in company to 14% from 32%
  5. Earnings: Gap raises full-year guidance despite declining sales in January, citing strong growth at Old Navy; Hermés lowers annual sales growth for 2015 to 8%

Elon Musk does AMA and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

This week, Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of SpaceX among other things, participated in Reddit’s famous AMA (Ask Me Anything). As expected, there’s a lot of starstruck comments and it is worth reading simply for those. Elon’s best responses include sharing a YouTube link of a cat in a shark suit riding a Roomba after being asked about AI safety. Apparently, he also has time to play video games, Kerbal Space Program in particular. He can probably do so because he only sleeps 6 hours a night. He also considers showering as one daily habit that has the largest positive impact in his life. Dude has a sense of humor. But the greatest gem in this AMA is this:

I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

This is a guy after all who educated himself about rocket science in order to launch SpaceX – a company which now owns a $1.6B commercial resupply contract for NASA. In fact, this weekend is SpaceX’s next launch attempt – its fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. You can watch a live webcast here starting at 4:47 AM ET tomorrow, January 10.

While we’re talking about Elon Musk, I had the most wonderful privilege of riding the Tesla Model S P85D last weekend. It IS an impressive car and I have a smile on my face right now thinking about it. So, get this: the acceleration can be adjusted between “Sport” and “Insane.” This being a test drive, of course we had to try “Insane.” I could imagine a bunch of engineers talking among themselves, “So, how do we call this feature again?” “Insane. Just. Insane.” And it certainly was. Think, the kind of force that would slam your head into the headrest like a rollercoaster going up fast if you were not ready. The car next to us did not know what just happened. Amazing.

With that, I give you this week’s roundup of relevant news in tech and retail.

In tech:

  1. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris, the target, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo vows to publish 1M copies next Wednesday, gets $300K funding from Google, et. al.
  2. Facebook acquires voice recognition company Wit.ai and video compression startup QuickFire; terms of both deals were not disclosed
  3. Uber launches Uber Cargo in Hong Kong, further hints at Uber’s ambitions in logistics services
  4. Apple reports 50% increase in app store sales in 2014
  5. Google Capital invests in Indian real-estate platform CommonFloor and leads $160M round of funding for Glassdoor Inc.

In retail:

  1. Coach Inc. buys women’s luxury footwear company Stuart Weitzman in a deal valued at up to $574M; see my take here
  2. Clothing and gift chain C. Wonder, the brainchild of billionaire Chris Burch (former partner of Tory Burch)  will close all its stores
  3. Credit Suisse downgrades Michael Kors to “neutral” from “outperform”, citing concerns on level of promotions in upscale department stores
  4. J.C. Penney and Macy’s announce the closing of more than 50 department stores nationwide
  5. Fast Retailing reports 64% jump in profit with higher-than-expected sales at Uniqlo

Space exploration and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

As some of you may have noted, the weekly roundups in tech tend to focus on consumer technology and the sties that most people use. It’s because I think that as technology continues to pervade our lives, it is best to know what they are, what they do and what they could do. But every once in a while, I come across fringe technological advances that are literally the stuff of science fiction – these are the “whoa” moments. This blog has always been a way for me to keep track of those “whoa” and “a-ha” moments and share them.

I could, of course, once again remind you to keep your digital life secure as the Sony hack keeps on unravelling, which US officials believe to have originated from North Korea. Actually, let me do that again: if you can, always turn on two-factor authentication in any service that you use. Although, Apple’s two-factor authentication could be the death of your digital life if your account has been hacked and you lost your recovery key, according to this post from NextWeb.

As the Internet keeps on getting hacked, meanwhile in space, NASA emailed a wrench to astronauts in space. Or, to be precise, NASA emailed a digital file of what a wrench should be, which was then 3D printed in space. Also, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will attempt to land its Falcon 9 on an ocean platform to showcase precision landing capabilities. On that note, if you want to reflect on the bigger picture of what could be in space exploration, here’s a beautiful short film by Erik Wernquist, narrated by Carl Sagan.

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, quoted in the film)

Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Here are this week’s weekly roundup in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Global Internet authority ICANN gets hacked after employees gave up credentials in phishing attacks in November
  2. Apple news: BBC releases documentary on “intolerable” and “dangerous” conditions in Apple’s supply chain; Apple dodges $1B iPod antitrust class-action lawsuit
  3. Google news: Google moved its end-to-end email encryption tool to GitHub to encourage developer scrutiny; Google to release Android version for cars in 2015; Google condemns Project Goliath, a secret campaign from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revive SOPA legislation
  4. Instagram deletes spam accounts and loses 18M+ followers; company is now valued at $35B by Citigroup
  5. Sony hack revelations: Snapchat has plans for a music feature, acquired QR scanning and iBeacon startup Scan.me for $50M, Vergence Labs, maker of eyeglass video cam for $15M, and live video/voice app startup AddLive for $30M; Sony also cancelled global release of the movie “The Interview” following threats from the hackers

In retail:

  1. American Apparel fires its controversial CEO/founder Dov Charney and names Paula Schneider as the new CEO; shares surge as takeover speculations emerge
  2. Avon formally pleads guilty to bribing Chinese officials, will pay $135M
  3. Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Walmart to pay $188M in class-action lawsuit over workers’ compensations
  4. Amazon rolls out Prime Now delivery service in one zip code in New York, delivery could be as little as one hour
  5. Puma names Rihanna as the new creative director