Crowdsourced Explorer

Or: Privatizing the Cosmos?

The Ramp Rules...In Space

"Crowdsource me up, Scotty."

On August 12, 1978, the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) was launched into space on a heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit.

Originally launched as the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, NASA intended ICE to investigate the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field. The unmanned probe finished that mission successfully and was then repurposed into being the first spacecraft to visit a comet. It was also the first spacecraft to maintain an orbit at the L1 Lagrange point.

So, ICE/ISEE-3 was a pretty big deal, NASA reluctantly cut contact in 1997. They made brief contact with it in 1999, just to check that it was still there. In 2008, as it happened, the probe was not only still there; the thing was still functioning. Then, in 2014, as ICE approached Earth again, NASA determined that the probe continued to function…and maybe it was possible to bring it back into operation.

NASA toyed with the idea briefly, but they ended up doing nothing (yes, it’s always easier to do nothing).

Then a remarkable thing happened: a group of interested scientists, engineers, and programmers began a grassroots attempt to bring the satellite back to life. With NASA's blessing and some assistance, they began their campaign to revive the probe.

They crowd-funded their expenses and actually began to acquire all the defunct, obsolete hardware they'd need reanimate the probe. On May 29th, the team successfully made contact with the probe.

Though they were able to fire the thrusters one time, mechanical issues prevented them from doing so again due to the loss of the nitrogen gas pressurizing the fuel tanks. They eventually lost contact on September 16th.

It seems unlikely that they'll ever regain contact. Yet this was an incredible milestone: theirs was the first crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, citizen-driven planetary space mission.

That's one heck of an achievement.

The Golden Repair

Making Lemonade: Pottery Version

Succeeding...where Humpty Dumpty didn't.

Kintsugi Action Figure

When we break a vase or a bowl, most of the time we just throw it away. We might be upset about breaking Grandma Esmeralda’s keepsake, but it's still usually going in the trash.

On the rare occasions when we try to repair it (say, under orders from Grandma Esmeralda’s daughter), we do our best to make sure that the repairs are as inconspicuous as possible.

In Japan, however, they do the complete opposite.

When a piece of Japanese ceramics breaks, they actually seal it back together with precious metal—gold, silver, or a lacquer containing powdered gold. The result is that they emphasize the breaks.

The art is known as kintsugi, which comes from a combination of kin (golden) and tsugi (repair). The fundamental philosophy of kintsugi is one that treats breaks and repairs as part of the history and essence of an object, not merely a mistake to be hidden. It's also an embracing of imperfection, which—if you ask me (or Grandma Esmerelda’s daughter)—can oftentimes be a pretty healthy attitude.

One reason this might not be as present in the West? The greater role of plastic. We use plastic constantly, and, unlike just about everything else, plastic ages terribly.

Old wood, pottery, or metal ages into beautiful antiques, but old plastic? It just looks terrible. There's no reason not to treat plastic as disposable in this sense.

The situation goes well beyond that. We've got a general culture of disposability. The huge geographical size of America means we have no problems creating huge garbage dumps wherever we want. American consumer culture demands that we keep filling our homes with the cheap stuff.

Of course, Japan isn't completely blameless in this regard. They have plenty of cheap disposable stuff they also throw away. Disposable wooden chopsticks, or waribashiare notable offenders, resulting in massive deforestation every year.

Still: kintsugi offers us an interesting pathway toward rethinking the way we deal with the objects in our lives.

Edsel: Famous for All the Wrong Reasons

Or: Is That a Citrus Fruit You’re Driving?

The Ford Edsel: Not Very Good Looking

Lemon? Or Lemonade?

In the automotive world, if there's a name that's synonymous with “lemon,” it's Edsel.

Produced in the late 1950s, the Edsel is something auto buffs commonly refer to as the worst car of all time. Ford lost $250 million on the Edsel—an absurd amount of money in the 1950s.

You know what, though? In many ways, the Edsel actually wasn't that bad of a car.

We hear a lot of claims about the Edsel. One of the most common: it was underpowered. That's actually not true. At 345 horsepower, it was one of the most powerful mass-produced American cars at the time (only three or four other cars were more powerful during its production run).

Another claim? That the Edsel was unreliable, which is also somewhat untrue. Since the Edsel was only assembled in Ford and Mercury factories, not in its own factory, quality control was difficult. And so a certain number of Edsels at certain factories turned out pretty badly, often with missing parts.

The Edsels that were completed—and had all their parts—were quite reliable, even for an already-reliable mid-century Ford. It was also the first car to include self-adjusting brakes and automatic lubrication, which later became industry standards.

So, why did the Edsel fail? There were a couple reasons, starting with Madison Avenue.

The Edsel was so drastically over-hyped that the American public was, essentially, expecting a spaceship. When they just got another bland, boring Ford, the public turned against it in droves. (Or, rather, they just didn't buy it in the expected numbers.)

Despite those problems and statistics, the Edsel remained a high-selling car (accounting for 5% of total car sales in 1958).

Original expectations, though, were for sales to be much higher, so Ford manufactured too many. And now combine that with a short economic recession in 1957 and 1958, and you see the lemon status come into full bloom.

Yes, the Edsel had other problems, including a lack of name brand recognition. What might have put the kibosh on the entire effort, though, is this: the Edsel was a really ugly-looking car.

East Meets West

Or: Is This Progress?

Go West, Old Country

Days of Future Past

I meant to be already retired by now, but HR tells me they’re still looking and can I stay a bit longer, and otherwise they’ll sue me. So, I stay. (I think Maggie is bribing HR.)

The closer I get to that possible retirement, the more books I find myself reading. I’ve always been a reader, though I seem to have more time for it now. If you've followed my blog, you can probably guess I tend toward history, with an emphasis on logistics, architecture, and construction.

My most recent read is Daniel Brook's A History of Future Cities. Despite the name, it's not science fiction. Instead, it's a history of four cities (St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Dubai, and Shanghai) that have undergone rapid Westernization and industrialization by their rulers in an effort to turn them into world class cities.

These “instant cities” all have histories that eerily echo one another. They all seem to have gone through remarkably similar life cycles:

  • They began as nothing, or as a provincial backwater, then were built up massively in a very short time by order of their rulers.
  • They undergo a period of absurd Westernization, to the point of hiring exclusively Western architects, who often never even go to the cities before designing their buildings.
  • They all undergo a period of rejection and resentment by the rest of the nation.

These cities are most strongly characterized, however, by their rejection of the traditional ways of their country.

Each city is, of course, still extremely distinct from one another. Dubai, for instance, has a population that's 97% foreign workers, divided between affluent foreign businessmen and poor itinerant laborers shipped in from other countries and paid a pittance.

Mumbai is surrounded by and interwoven with one of the world's largest slums.

Shanghai disguises all of its poor workers it imports in uniforms and houses them in dorms on the outskirts of town.

Brook does an excellent job exploring the rise and fall of cities in regions trying to rapidly adapt to and join the technological West. The result is that these cities become not just comparable power players but places actually trying to be the West, in a very real sense.

Though A History of Future Cities definitely tends towards the somber at times, it's a surprisingly gripping read.