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Unity VR Principal Designer Timoni West speaking at Dent:Space

Scientists, educators, startup founders, and authors came together for Dent:Space, a fantastically free conference at the Innovation Hangar.

Highlights

Susmita Mohanty, whose company builds deployable space habitats, called for a softening of US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), as it’s interfering with rapid global innovation.

Then we heard about a way to build Martian habitats from Keegan Kirkpatrick, who advised Mars-bound engineers to consider in-situ additive construction. If we can figure out how to make Mars soil nontoxic to humans, we’d save a ton of money on the trip.

Timoni West (photo above), who runs Unity’s VR team, shared the most dazzling space-themed VR titles available.

And Scott Manley convinced an audience that they should finally try playing Kerbal Space Program. He remarked that the game had made it easier for students of rocket propulsion to understand the math, because they had developed a feel for rocketry while playing Kerbal.

Favorite quotes

“The space industry doesn’t yet fully realize they need people of different skill sets and backgrounds.” Ariel Waldman, co-host of Dent:Space

“Most space companies work in a very engineering-centered approach. But I think the ISS is over-engineered and under-designed. If you were a consumer or a scientist, you wouldn’t want to put up with that habitat.” Susmita Mohanty, Earth2Orbit

“$20 million usually doesn’t get you a space vehicle. Usually it gets you a 50-page powerpoint presentation.” Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic

Selected slides

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NASA Advanced Exploration Systems Director Jason Crusan speaking at Dent:Space

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Christianna Taylor talks space debris at Dent:Space

And read a detailed writeup of the event at Popular Science.

 

spacex

EDIT: The document featured in this post is no longer being updated. For an up-to-date survey of commercial space companies, try Crunchbase.

Here’s a start to a survey of commercial space companies. The purpose of this document is to give industry newbs a directory of interesting, active companies they might be interested in learning more about.

View on Google Drive: Space Business

If you have any feedback or additions, or if you know of a better document out there, please leave a comment.

Wonderfully fun show!

At San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the planetarium team hosts an event called the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lectures.

Here’s what I know about astronomy based on five months of lectures:

1. Most astronomy presenters, like most people, aren’t that good at telling stories.

Most of the time, when I walked out of a Benjamin Dean lecture, my companions would turn to me with excitement, and I would feel confusion. What was that about? If I could recap the lecture quickly enough aloud, some of it would stick.

Sometimes when I sit in one of these lectures, I become irritated with the presenter’s inability to guide the audience through concepts and their poor type design. I feel annoyed that they won’t say at the outset of the presentation what we’re going to learn. One presenter, coming near the end and just at the point of making a possibly useful summary, decided to skip ahead, because her talk was running long. All the spinning plates in my head drop to the floor.

Disclosure

I am not well-read on astronomy. Here are my astronomy-related non-credentials: I took an introduction to astronomy class in 1998, at the University of Arizona. One of my college roommates at UC Berkeley was an astrophysics student. I have seen Gravity once and Interstellar twice. I have watched most of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos but none of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I follow 4 astronomers on Twitter and Patreon-ize my spacealicious acquaintance Ariel Waldman. One of my best friends, who is a smartie and general geek, frequently sends me links to Sixty Symbols and Crash Course videos, about half of which I watch. So I can kind of explain what a Lagrange point is and describe the light spectrum. My favorite kind of star is the neutron star. Because that shit is tight.

So when I say I went to five astronomy lectures at the planetarium and hardly understood them, it might be safe to say they weren‘t that well-done. If I then say that I mostly disliked them, maybe you should be concerned. Because I have an interest in astronomy and want to find a way to relate to it, but I’m not finding a way to dig in.

I’m either not smart enough for astronomy, not curious enough — both possibly valid points — or perhaps astronomy still isn’t accessible enough to the public.

That being said…

Even video bloggers, the most engaging of science presenters, talk too fast, include too much information, and use too few visuals to give their presentations a good chance of sticking. Unless 10-year-olds have mutated new biotech for absorbing information at rapid speeds. Which I wouldn’t put past them, the rascals.

2. Astronomy departments don’t know how to grow their audience.

At the first astronomy lecture I attended, the host asked the audience, “It’s Monday night. Do any of you care that this is happening at the same time as Monday Night Football?”

Cue twenty seconds of laughter, groaning, and loud dismissals from the audience. “Okay, okay, thanks,” said the host. Great job, everyone. Our biases have been confirmed. Because everyone who DID care about Monday Night Football was not in the theater: they were watching Monday Night Football. So that poll was the least effective way to find out if any people had been considering attending an astronomy lecture but decided not to because it was football night.

Do I think there are lots of football fans who wish they could have made it to CalAcademy? Not really. But if CalAcademy wanted to reach football fans for their opinion, they failed and didn’t even notice they failed. So much for science.

Pop science content creators are still serving only people who seek knowledge. Nerds. And while there are many more nerds in the world than there used to be, thank goodness, few people consistently pursue knowledge for its own sake. Most people seek knowledge to aid them in an immediate purpose.

And I come in…how?

Okay, I’m slightly embarrassed at all the ignorance I displayed above. I’m hoping I get better at this. Because I want to help. It’s important to me that people care more about the space sciences, rocket science, whatever science gets us closer to building an off-world habitat. This post is me making a note on my way to figuring out how I can help.

Tim Urban, who wrote one of my favoritest posts ever (“The Great Filter”), just shared a new article on creating offworld communities:

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s imagine the Earth is a hard drive, and each species on Earth, including our own, is a Microsoft Excel document on the hard drive filled with trillions of rows of data…

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?

You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s why Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.

Go read How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars.

Shortly after my “Made in Space” post, I discovered that a company called Made in Space exists. I followed them on Twitter last year as they installed a 3D printer on the International Space Station. Newsweek says:

Their first offering, launched to the ISS in the fall of 2014, is fairly simple: a 3-D printer that prints plastic parts. In itself, this will bring on a manufacturing revolution of sorts. “The first 3-D printers on the ISS will be able to build objects that could never be manufactured on Earth,” says Kemmer. “Imagine, for example, building a structure that couldn’t withstand its own weight.”

Made in Space’s next iteration will be able to print with multiple materials, including both plastics and metals, which means that sometime in the next five years, 60 percent of the parts in use on the ISS will be printable. And just behind this version is the real game changer: a 3-D printer capable of printing electronics.

…[Says Dunn,] “It’s hard to say for sure, but around 2025 we should be able to print electronics aboard the ISS. This means we’ll be able to email hardware into space for free, rather than paying to have it launched there.”

So there you go. Glad to see people working on this problem.

“I believe the pioneering efforts of early astronauts like Buzz [Aldrin] need to be taken to the next level. I am convinced that one day humans will have to colonize other planets in order to survive. Space travel will become an everyday necessity.”

Stephen Hawking

Presented at Ignite YxYY on July 13, 2014.

Talk track for the deck

You’ve heard of startups needing an “exit strategy” when they take venture capital. Like these guys from WhatsApp, who sold their company to Facebook for $19 billion.

But humanity needs an exit strategy too. Ultimately, we have to get off this planet.

Why?

5 billion years from now, the sun will be way huge and probably engulf Earth.

That’s a long time from now, but other stuff will happen in the nearer future:

  • Like an ice age in 100,000 years.
  • Or a massive volcanic explosion, which is also likely within 100,000 years.
  • It’s highly likely that within 500,000 years, a meteor at least 1 km wide will hit. Which would be devastating to life on Earth.
  • If you want to freak yourself out, consider that within 800 million years, there will no longer be enough carbon dioxide to support photosynthesis. That means no kale.
  • And even if we only have McDonald’s by then, all water will evaporate from earth about a billion years from now, because it’ll be too dang hot. An average temperature of 47°C means no more oceans.
So if we want to carry on breathing, we need a place to go that will support our life functions. Stuff like:
  1. Air to breathe and water to drink
  2. Agriculture for renewable food
  3. Mining and manufacturing (we need to put China in space)
I think the key to this is getting more business going in space, so more people are drawn to work on the problems of relocating part of the human race. So far we’ve got entrepreneurs working hard on rocketry, asteroid mining (kinda), and a Mars colony [edit: this was before SpaceX announced their Mars plans, but I was confident]. And I want to help however I can. Hit me up on Twitter if you’d like to talk about it.

 

Notes

“Yesyes.js” refers to a tech talk I hosted at the event featuring three JavaScript developers.

The “nametags” were temporary tattoos to make poolside introductions easier. (No shirt? No problem.)

One of the slides is repeated because I needed more time during that portion of the talk.

Ever heard of The Great Filter?

It’s a story that potentially explains why Earth hasn’t yet been contacted by alien life. There might be a very difficult obstacle every intelligent life form eventually faces, an obstacle greater than all the ones before it, that almost no species surmounts. This obstacle permanently extinguishes (filters) almost all life forms. If the Great Filter exists, it’s an evolutionary challenge humans could face with extremely low probability of success.

There’s an excellent article discussing The Great Filter (and other responses to Fermi’s Paradox) on the blog Wait But Why. And the authors note that, if the Great Filter exists, we don’t know whether we’ve already encountered it or not. WBW writes:

Therefore, say Group 1 explanations, it must be that there are no super-advanced civilizations. And since the math suggests that there are thousands of them just in our own galaxy, something else must be going on.

This something else is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond. That stage is The Great Filter.

For example, regardless of what one thinks of the possibility of anthropogenic climate change in the short term (the next 200 years), the fact is that Earth’s climate WILL change in the long term (in the next 200,000 years). Drastically. You could imagine how dramatic and geologically quick swings in climate could challenge a species. There are multiple phyla on earth whose species span extreme climates, like cyanobacteria and tardigrades.

How does this relate to moving off-world?

Finding ways to adapt to different living conditions is a useful step toward passing the Great Filter. Let’s diversify our real estate strategy. Hedge our bets.

An important initial step in securing an off-world future is starting and scaling manufacturing in space.

Several companies are already working on the problem of mining in space, to capture the rich deposits of gold and other metals embedded in asteroids. But most likely those metals will be brought back to Earth to be worked. We’ll still need to figure out how to process raw materials and build things without the benefit of gravity and, eventually, without bright starlight. Otherwise, any vessel we permanently eject from Earth, no matter how well provisioned, will ultimately break down and kill its inhabitants.

But how to get started? I think we start simply. Do something that draws attention and gets people thinking about doing business from space. Take a straightforward, known manufacturing process, and reproduce it in space.

Like T-shirts. Truck all the fabric, thread, tags, and equipment into orbit, assemble a batch of shirts there, and cart it back down. Label it “Made in Space” and charge hundreds of dollars for it.

Would you buy a shirt simply because it was made in space? I would.