Step one should be to question the requirements

Monday, June 10th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonReaching five thousand cars per week would be a huge challenge for Tesla, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

By the end of 2017, Tesla was making cars at only half that rate. Musk decided he had to move himself, literally, to the factory floors and lead an all-in surge. It was a tactic — personally surging into the breach 24/7 with an all-hands-on-deck cadre of fellow fanatics — that came to define the maniacal intensity that he demanded at his companies.

He began with the Gigafactory in Nevada, where Tesla made batteries. The person who designed the line there told Musk that making five thousand battery packs a week was insane. At most they could make eighteen hundred. “If you’re right, Tesla is dead,” Musk told him. “We either have five thousand cars a week or we can’t cover our costs.” Building more lines would take another year, the executive said. Musk moved him out and brought in a new captain, Brian Dow, who had the gung-ho mentality Musk liked.

[…]

At one point Musk noticed that the assembly line was being slowed at a station where strips of fiberglass were glued to the battery packs by an expensive but slow robot. The robot’s suction cups kept dropping the strip and it applied too much glue. “I realized that the first error was trying to automate the process, which was my fault because I pushed for a lot of automation,” he says.

After much frustration, Musk finally asked a basic question: “What the hell are these strips for?” He was trying to visualize why fiberglass pieces were needed between the battery and the floor pan. The engineering team told him that it had been specified by the noise reduction team to cut down on vibration. So he called the noise reduction team, which told him that the specification came from the engineering team to reduce the risk of fire. “It was like being in a Dilbert cartoon,” Musk says. So he ordered them to record the sound inside a car without the fiberglass and then with the fiberglass. “See if you can tell the difference,” he told them. They couldn’t.

“Step one should be to question the requirements,” he says. “Make them less wrong and dumb, because all requirements are somewhat wrong and dumb. And then delete, delete, delete.”

The same approach worked even on the smallest details. For example, when the battery packs were completed in Nevada, little plastic caps were put on the prongs that would plug it into the car. When the battery got to the Fremont car-assembly factory, the plastic caps were removed and discarded. Sometimes, they would run out of caps in Nevada and have to hold up shipment of the batteries. When Musk asked why the caps existed, he was told they had been specified to make sure the pins did not get bent. “Who specified that requirement?” he asked. The factory team scrambled to find out, but they weren’t able to come up with a name. “So delete them,” Musk said. They did, and it turned out they never had a problem with bent pins.

[…]

At 10 p.m. one Saturday, he became angry about a robotic arm that installed a cooling tube into a battery. The robot’s alignment was off, which was holding up the process. A young manufacturing engineer named Gage Coffin was summoned. He was excited about the chance to meet Musk. He had been working for Tesla for two years and had spent the previous eleven months living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week at the factory. It was his first full-time job, and he loved it. When he arrived, Musk barked, “Hey, this doesn’t line up. Did you do this?” Coffin responded haltingly by asking Musk what he was referring to. The coding? The design? The tooling? Musk kept asking, “Did you fucking do this?” Coffin, flummoxed and frightened, kept fumbling to figure out the question. That made Musk even more combative. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “Get the hell out and don’t come back.” His project manager pulled him aside a few minutes later and told him that Musk had ordered him fired. He received his termination papers that Monday. “My manager was fired a week after me, and his manager the week after that,” Coffin says. “At least Elon knew their names.”

“When Elon gets upset, he lashes out, often at junior people,” says Jon McNeill. “Gage’s story was fairly typical of his behavior where he just couldn’t really process his frustration in a productive way.” JB Straubel, Musk’s kinder and gentler cofounder, cringed at Musk’s behavior. “In retrospect it may seem like great war stories,” he says, “but in the middle of it, it was absolutely horrific. He was making us fire people who had been personal friends for a very long time, which was super painful.”

[…]

One night, Musk was walking through the Nevada battery pack factory with his posse — Afshar, Antonio Gracias, and Tim Watkins — and they noticed a delay at a workstation where a robotic arm was sticking cells to a tube. The machine had a problem gripping the material and getting aligned. Watkins and Gracias went over to a table and tried to do the process by hand. They could do it more reliably. They called Musk over and calculated how many humans it would take to get rid of the machine. Workers were hired to replace the robot, and the assembly line moved more quickly.

Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.

[…]

“We put a hole in the side of the building just to remove all that equipment,” Musk says.

[…]

Always wait until the end of designing a process — after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts — before you introduce automation.

There was a curve on Interstate 405 that always caused Musk trouble

Monday, May 27th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonIn 2015, Musk was spending hours each week working with the Autopilot team, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

He would drive from his home in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles to the SpaceX headquarters near the airport, where they would discuss the problems his Autopilot system encountered. “Every meeting started with Elon saying, ‘Why can’t the car drive itself from my home to work?’” says Drew Baglino, one of Tesla’s senior vice presidents.

[…]

There was a curve on Interstate 405 that always caused Musk trouble because the lane markings were faded. The Autopilot would swerve out of the lane and almost hit oncoming cars. Musk would come into the office furious. “Do something to program this right,” he kept demanding. This went on for months as the team tried to improve the Autopilot software.

In desperation, Sam Teller and others came up with a simpler solution: ask the transportation department to repaint the lanes of that section of the highway. When they got no response, they came up with a more audacious plan. They decided to rent a line-painting machine of their own, go out at 3 a.m., shut the highway down for an hour, and redo the lanes. They had gone as far as tracking down a line-painting machine when someone finally got through to a person at the transportation department who was a Musk fan. He agreed to have the lines repainted if he and a few others at the department could get a tour of SpaceX. Teller gave them a tour, they posed for a picture, and the highway lines got repainted. After that, Musk’s Autopilot handled the curve well.

Ultimately, it comes down to luck

Friday, May 24th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhile working as a summer research assistant at Stanford, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he discovered another pernicious luxury belief:

I asked a housemate who was working on a start-up how he’d gotten into Stanford and what steps he was taking to build his company.

He paused for a moment and then said, “Ultimately, it comes down to luck.”

As soon as he said that, it occurred to me that this mind-set is pervasive at Yale as well — far more common than among the people I grew up around or the women and men I served with in the military. Many of my peers at Yale and Stanford would work ceaselessly. But when I’d ask them about the plans they’d implemented to get into college, or start a company, or land their dream job, they’d often suggest they just got lucky rather than attribute their success to their efforts.

[…]

A 2019 study found that people with high income and social status are the most likely to attribute success to mere luck rather than hard work.

Both luck and hard work play a role in the direction of our lives, but stressing the former at the expense of the latter doesn’t help those at or near the bottom of society. If disadvantaged people come to believe that luck is the key factor that determines success, then they will be less likely to strive to improve their lives. One study tracked more than six thousand young adults in the US at the beginning of their careers over the course of two decades, and found that those who believed that life’s outcomes are due to their own efforts as opposed to external factors became more successful in their careers and went on to attain higher earnings.

[…]

“If your sister asked you how to get into Stanford or start a company, would you shrug and say ‘I just got lucky’ or would you explain whatever it was that you actually did — ‘You have to study, sacrifice, work on the weekends, or whatever’?”

He rolled his eyes before replying, “Yeah, I get it.”

Musk’s Japanese steampunk-themed 42nd birthday party culminated in a demonstration of Sumo wrestling

Monday, May 20th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk’s Japanese steampunk-themed 42nd birthday party, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), culminated in a demonstration of Sumo wrestling:

At the end, the group’s 350-pound champion invited Musk into the ring. “I went full strength at him to try a judo throw, because I thought he was trying to take it easy on me,” Musk says. “I decided to see if I could throw this guy, and I did. But I also blew out a disc at the base of my neck.”

Ever since, Musk has suffered severe bouts of back and neck pain; he would end up having three operations to try to repair his C5-C6 intervertebral disc. During meetings at the Tesla or SpaceX factories, he would sometimes lie flat on the floor with an ice pack at the base of his neck.

American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products

Monday, May 13th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonBetween 2000 and 2010, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), the U.S. lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs:

By sending their factories abroad, American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products.

Musk bucked this trend, largely because he wanted to have tight control of the manufacturing process. He believed that designing the factory to build a car — “the machine that builds the machine” — was as important as designing the car itself. Tesla’s design-manufacturing feedback loop gave it a competitive advantage, allowing it to innovate on a daily basis.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison joined only two corporate boards, Apple and Tesla, and he became close friends with Jobs and Musk. He said they both had beneficial cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “OCD is one of the reasons for their success, because they obsessed on solving a problem until they did,” he says. What set them apart is that Musk, unlike Jobs, applied that obsession not just to the design of a product but also to the underlying science, engineering, and manufacturing. “Steve just had to get the conception and software right, but the manufacturing was outsourced,” Ellison says. “Elon took on the manufacturing, the materials, the huge factories.” Jobs loved to walk through Apple’s design studio on a daily basis, but he never visited his factories in China. Musk, in contrast, spent more time walking assembly lines than he did walking around the design studio. “The brain strain of designing the car is tiny compared to the brain strain of designing the factory,” he says.

[…]

He was able to get the mothballed factory, which at one point had been worth $1 billion, for $42 million. In addition, Toyota agreed to invest $50 million in Tesla.

When redesigning the factory, Musk put the cubicles for the engineers right on the edge of the assembly lines, so they would see the flashing lights and hear the complaints whenever one of their design elements caused a slowdown.

[…]

The month after Tesla bought the factory, Musk was able to take the company public, the first IPO by an American carmaker since Ford’s in 1956.

[…]

By the end of the day, the stock market had fallen, but Tesla’s stock rose more than 40 percent, providing $266 million in financing for the company.

SpaceX repeatedly proved that it could be nimbler than NASA

Monday, May 6th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson The Falcon 1 had failed three times before being successful, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), and the Falcon 9 was far bigger and more complex:

The chances for success were not helped when a storm rolled in and soaked the rocket. “Our antenna got wet,” Buzza recalls, “and we weren’t getting a good telemetry signal.” They lowered the rocket from the launchpad, and Musk came out with Buzza to inspect the damage. Bülent Altan, the goulash-cooking hero of Kwaj, climbed a ladder, looked at the antennas, and confirmed that they were too wet to work. A typical SpaceX fix was improvised: they fetched a hair dryer, and Altan waved it over the antennas until the moisture was gone. “You think it is good enough to fly tomorrow?” Musk asked him. Altan replied, “It should do the trick.” Musk stared at him silently for a while, assessing him and his answer, then said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

The next morning, the radio frequency checks were still not perfect. “It wasn’t the right sort of pattern,” Buzza says. So he told Musk there might be another delay. Musk looked at the data. As usual, he was willing to tolerate more risk than others. “It’s good enough,” he said. “Let’s launch.” Buzza assented. “The important thing with Elon,” he says, “is that if you told him the risks and showed him the engineering data, he would make a quick assessment and let the responsibility shift from your shoulders to his.”

[…]

The day before the planned December launch, a final pad inspection revealed two small cracks in the engine skirt of the rocket’s second stage. “Everyone at NASA assumed we’d be standing down from the launch for a few weeks,” says Garver. “The usual plan would have been to replace the entire engine.”

“What if we just cut the skirt?” Musk asked his team. “Like, literally cut around it?” In other words, why not just trim off a tiny bit of the bottom that had the two cracks? The shorter skirt would mean the engine would have slightly less thrust, one engineer warned, but Musk calculated that there would still be enough to do the mission. It took less than an hour to make the decision. Using a big pair of shears, the skirt was trimmed, and the rocket launched on its critical mission the next day, as planned. “NASA couldn’t do anything but accept SpaceX’s decisions and watch in disbelief,” Garver recalls.

[…]

SpaceX repeatedly proved that it could be nimbler than NASA. One example came during a mission to the Space Station in March 2013, when one of the valves in the engine of the Dragon capsule stuck shut. The SpaceX team started scrambling to figure out how to abort the mission and return the capsule safely before it crashed. Then they came up with a risky idea. Perhaps they could build up the pressure in front of the valve to a very high level. Then if they suddenly released the pressure, it might cause the valve to burp open. “It’s like the spacecraft equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver,” Musk later told the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

The top two NASA officials in the control room stood back and watched as the young SpaceX engineers hatched the plan. One of SpaceX’s software engineers churned out the code that would instruct the capsule to build up pressure, and they transmitted it as if it were a software update for a Tesla car.

Boom, pop. It worked.

No one buys books

Thursday, May 2nd, 2024

Trial by Publisher’s LunchNo one buys books, Elle Griffin concludes:

In 2022, Penguin Random House wanted to buy Simon & Schuster. The two publishing houses made up 37 percent and 11 percent of the market share, according to the filing, and combined they would have condensed the Big Five publishing houses into the Big Four. But the government intervened and brought an antitrust case against Penguin to determine whether that would create a monopoly.

The judge ultimately ruled that the merger would create a monopoly and blocked the $2.2 billion purchase. But during the trial, the head of every major publishing house and literary agency got up on the stand to speak about the publishing industry and give numbers, giving us an eye-opening account of the industry from the inside. All of the transcripts from the trial were compiled into a book called The Trial. It took me a year to read, but I’ve finally summarized my findings and pulled out all the compelling highlights.

I think I can sum up what I’ve learned like this: The Big Five publishing houses spend most of their money on book advances for big celebrities like Britney Spears and franchise authors like James Patterson and this is the bulk of their business. They also sell a lot of Bibles, repeat best sellers like Lord of the Rings, and children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. These two market categories (celebrity books and repeat bestsellers from the backlist) make up the entirety of the publishing industry and even fund their vanity project: publishing all the rest of the books we think about when we think about book publishing (which make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies).

[…]

The DOJ’s lawyer collected data on 58,000 titles published in a year and discovered that 90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies.

[…]

They spent a lot of the trial talking about books that made an advance of more than $250,000—they called these “anticipated top-sellers.” According to Nicholas Hill, a partner at Bates White Economic Consulting, 2 percent of all titles earn an advance over $250,000.

[…]

Hill says titles that earn advances over $250,000 account for 70 percent of advance spending by publishing houses. At Penguin Random House, it’s even more. The bulk of their advance spending goes to deals worth $1 million or more, and there are about 200 of those deals a year. Of the roughly $370 million they say PRH accounts for, $200 million of that goes to advance deals worth $1 million or more.

[…]

Books by the Obamas sold so many copies they had to be removed from the charts as statistical anomalies.

[…]

Franchise authors are the other big category. Walsch says James Patterson and John Grisham get advances in the “many millions.” Putnam makes most of its money from repeat authors like John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Lisa Scottoline, and others.

[…]

Markus Dohle, CEO, Penguin Random House, says the top 4 percent of titles drive 60 percent of the profitability.

[…]

After the Judge denied the merger, Penguin went through a massive round of layoffs and Simon & Schuster was sold to a private equity company instead.

Decades of cost-plus contracts had made aerospace flabby

Monday, April 29th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonThe Falcon 1’s successor was supposed to have five more powerful engines, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), and thus be called the Falcon 5:

But Tom Mueller worried that it would take too long to build a new engine, and he persuaded Musk to accept a revised idea: a rocket with nine of the original Merlin engines. Thus was born the Falcon 9, a rocket that would become the workhorse of SpaceX for more than a decade. At 157 feet, it was more than twice as tall as the Falcon 1, ten times more powerful, and twelve times heavier.

The new rocket would also need a more convenient launch pad that the one on Kwajalein:

SpaceX made a deal to use part of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, which has close to seven hundred buildings, pads, and launch complexes spread out over 144,000 acres on Florida’s Atlantic coast. SpaceX leased Launchpad 40, which since the 1960s had been used for the Air Force’s Titan rocket launches.

[…]

Regularly prodded by Musk, Mosdell rebuilt the area in SpaceX’s typical scrappy way, literally. He and his boss, Tim Buzza, scavenged for components that could be cheaply repurposed. Buzza was driving down a road at Cape Canaveral and saw an old liquid oxygen tank. “I asked the general if we could buy it,” he says, “and we got a $1.5 million pressure vessel for scrap. It’s still at Pad 40.”

Musk also saved money by questioning requirements. When he asked his team why it would cost $2 million to build a pair of cranes to lift the Falcon 9, he was shown all the safety regulations imposed by the Air Force. Most were obsolete, and Mosdell was able to convince the military to revise them. The cranes ended up costing $300,000.

Decades of cost-plus contracts had made aerospace flabby. A valve in a rocket would cost thirty times more than a similar valve in a car, so Musk constantly pressed his team to source components from non-aerospace companies. The latches used by NASA in the Space Station cost $1,500 each. A SpaceX engineer was able to modify a latch used in a bathroom stall and create a locking mechanism that cost $30. When an engineer came to Musk’s cubicle and told him that the air-cooling system for the payload bay of the Falcon 9 would cost more than $3 million, he shouted over to Gwynne Shotwell in her adjacent cubicle to ask what an air-conditioning system for a house cost. About $6,000, she said. So the SpaceX team bought some commercial air-conditioning units and modified their pumps so they could work atop the rocket.

When Mosdell worked for Lockheed and Boeing, he rebuilt a launchpad complex at the Cape for the Delta IV rocket. The similar one he built for the Falcon 9 cost one-tenth as much.

Lower the roof

Monday, April 22nd, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonDesigning the Model S, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), presented new challenges:

“In a sports car, the lines and proportions are like that of a supermodel, and it’s relatively easy to make that good looking,” he says. “But the proportions of a sedan are harder to make pleasing.”

Tesla had originally contracted with Henrik Fisker, a Danish-born designer in Southern California who had produced the sensuous styling of the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9. Musk was not impressed with his ideas. The car “looks like a fucking egg on wheels,” he said of one of Fisker’s sketches. “Lower the roof.”

Fisker tried to explain the problem to Musk. Because the battery pack would raise the floor of the car, the roof needed to bulge in order to provide enough headroom. Fisker went to a whiteboard and sketched the Aston Martin design that Musk liked. It was low and wide. But the Model S could not have the same sleek proportions because of its battery location. “Imagine you’re at a fashion show with Giorgio Armani,” Fisker explained. “A model who is six feet tall and weighs a hundred pounds comes in wearing a dress. You’re with your wife and she is five feet tall and weighs a hundred fifty pounds, and you say to Armani, ‘Make that dress for my wife.’ It won’t look the same.”

Musk ordered dozens of changes, including to the shape of the headlights and the lines of the hood. Fisker, who considered himself an artist, told Musk why he didn’t want to make some of them. “I don’t care what you want,” Musk replied at one point. “I’m ordering you to do these things.” Fisker recalls Musk’s chaotic intensity with a tone of weary amusement. “I’m not really a Musk type of guy,” he says. “I’m pretty laid back.” After nine months, Musk canceled his contract.

[…]

“We spent a lot of time shaving millimeters from the battery pack so that we could ensure that you had enough headroom without making it a bubble car,” Musk says.

[…]

They engineered it so that the pack became an element of the car’s structure.

[…]

“At other places I worked,” von Holzhausen says, “there was this throw-it-over-the-fence mentality, where a designer would have an idea and then send it to an engineer, who sat in a different building or in a different country.” Musk put the engineers and designers in the same room. “The vision was that we would create designers who thought like engineers and engineers who thought like designers,” von Holzhausen says.

[…]

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs once explained. “Nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”

They were expecting some lame PowerPoint presentation

Monday, April 15th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonOne criticism of Tesla, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), has been that the company was “bailed out” or “subsidized” by the government in 2009:

In fact, Tesla did not get money from the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), commonly known as “the bailout.” Under that program, the government lent $18.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler as they went through bankruptcy restructuring. Tesla did not apply for any TARP or stimulus package money.

What Tesla did get in June 2009 was $465 million in interest-bearing loans from a Department of Energy program. The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program lent money to companies to make electric or fuel-efficient cars. Ford, Nissan, and Fisker Automotive also got loans.

The Energy Department’s loan to Tesla was not an immediate infusion of cash. Unlike the bailout money to GM and Chrysler, the loan money was tied to actual expenses. “We had to spend money and then submit invoices to the government,” Musk explains. So the first check did not come until early 2010. Three years later, Tesla repaid its loan along with $12 million interest. Nissan repaid in 2017, Fisker went bankrupt, and as of 2023 Ford still owed the money.

[…]

In October 2008, amid Tesla’s crisis and SpaceX’s launch failures, Musk flew to the German company’s Stuttgart headquarters. The Daimler executives told him that they were interested in creating an electric car, and they had a team that was planning to visit the U.S. in January 2009. They invited Tesla to show them a proposal for an electric version of Daimler’s Smart car.

Upon his return, Musk told JB Straubel that they should scramble to put together an electric Smart car prototype by the time the Daimler team arrived.

[…]

When the Daimler executives arrived at Tesla in January 2009, they seemed annoyed that they had been scheduled to meet with a small and cash-strapped company they had barely heard of. “I remember them being very grumpy and wanting to get out of there as soon as possible,” Musk says. “They were expecting some lame PowerPoint presentation.” Then Musk asked them if they wanted to drive the car. “What do you mean?” one of the Daimler team asked. Musk explained that they had created a working model.

[…]

The car bolted forward in an instant and reached sixty miles per hour in about four seconds. It blew them away. “That Smart car hauled ass,” Musk says. “You could do wheelies in that car.” As a result, Daimler contracted with Tesla for battery packs and powertrains for Smart cars, an idea not so different from the one Salzman had suggested.

[…]

In May 2009, even before the Department of Energy loans were approved, Daimler agreed to take a $50 million equity stake in Tesla. “If Daimler had not invested in Tesla at that time we would have died,” Musk says.

That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table

Monday, April 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had jolted his team, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), right after the third failed flight in August 2008, with his deadline of getting a new rocket to Kwaj in six weeks:

That seemed like a Musk reality-distortion ploy. It had taken them twelve months between the first and second failed launches, and another seventeen months between the second and the third. But because the rocket did not need any fundamental design changes to correct the problems that caused the third failure, he calculated that a six-week deadline was doable and would energize his team. Also, given his rapid cash burn, he had no other choice.

SpaceX had components for that fourth rocket in its Los Angeles factory, but shipping it by sea to Kwaj would take four weeks. Tim Buzza, SpaceX’s launch director, told Musk that the only way to meet his deadline would be to charter a C-17 transport plane from the Air Force. “Well, then, just do it,” Musk replied. That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table.

Twenty SpaceX employees rode with the rocket in the hold of the C-17, strapped into jump seats along the wall.

[…]

As they started to descend for refueling in Hawaii, there was a loud popping sound. And another. “We’re like looking at each other, like, this seems weird,” Harriss says. “And then we get another bang, and we saw the side of the rocket tank crumpling like a Coke can.” The rapid descent of the plane caused the pressure in the hold to increase, and the valves of the tank weren’t letting in air fast enough to allow the pressure inside to equalize.

There was a mad scramble as the engineers pulled out their pocket knives and began cutting away the shrink wrapping and trying to open the valves. Bülent Altan ran to the cockpit to try to stop the descent. “Here’s this big Turkish guy screaming at the Air Force pilots, who were the whitest Americans you have ever seen, to go back higher,” Harriss says. Astonishingly, they did not dump the rocket, or Altan, into the ocean. Instead, they agreed to ascend, but warned Altan that they had only thirty minutes of fuel. That meant in ten minutes they would need to start descending again. One of the engineers climbed inside the dark area between the rocket’s first and second stage, found the large pressurization line, and managed to twist it open, allowing air to rush into the rocket and equalize the pressure as the cargo plane again started to descend. The metal began popping back close to its original shape. But damage had been done. The exterior was dented, and one of the slosh baffles had been dislodged.

They called Musk in Los Angeles to tell him what happened and suggest that they bring the rocket back. “All of us standing there could just hear this pause,” says Harriss. “He is silent for a minute. Then he’s like, ‘No, you’re going to get it to Kwaj and fix it there.’” Harriss recalls that when they got to Kwaj their first reaction was, “Man, we’re doomed.” But after a day, the excitement kicked in. “We began telling ourselves, ‘We’re going to make this work.’”

[…]

After SpaceX’s first three failures, Musk had imposed more quality controls and risk-reduction procedures. “So we were now used to moving a little bit slower, with more documentation and checks,” Buzza says. He told Musk that if they followed all these new requirements, it would take five weeks to repair the rocket. If they jettisoned the requirements, they could do it in five days. Musk made the expected decision. “Okay,” he said. “Go as fast as you can.”

Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk that anyone. “This is something that we had to learn, which was that Elon would make a statement, but then time would go on and he would realize, ‘Oh no, actually we can do it this other way,’” Buzza says.

[…]

“It was unlike anything that the bloated companies in the aerospace industry could possibly have imagined,” Buzza says. “Sometimes his insane deadlines make sense.”

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas

Saturday, April 6th, 2024

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas via a system it calls the Terraformer:

Roughly the size of two shipping containers, the Terraformer consists of three subsystems: an electrolyzer, which converts solar power into hydrogen; a direct air capture system that captures CO2; and a chemical reactor that ingests both these inputs to produce pipeline-grade synthetic natural gas. The entire machine is optimized for a one-megawatt solar array.

Terraformer Diagram

The result is some fairly staggering cost reductions: Terraform says its system converts clean electricity into hydrogen at less than $2.50 per kilogram of H2 (currently, green hydrogen ranges from $5-11 per kilogram, Handmer estimated). The direct air capture system also filters CO2 for less than $250 per ton, which the company said in a statement, is a world record.

The startup says that improvements are already in the works to bring these prices down even further to ensure that its synthetic natural gas hits cost parity with conventionally sourced liquified natural gas. Much of that is dependent on the build-out of lots (and lots and lots) of cheap solar power, and the requisite production of thousands of Terraformers per year.

The minimum order is a box of five

Thursday, April 4th, 2024

Just as small, agile drones are starting to look like the future of war, David Hambling notes, small agile suppliers may be the future of defense procurement:

Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.

[…]

Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.

[…]

Steel Hornets provide their munitions without explosive filling or detonator. This makes them safe to handle and easy to distribute via the postal service, allowing Steel Hornets to supply drone operators quickly and efficiently wherever they are.

To arm the munition, the operator fits it with a standard military MD5M or KD8A detonator, devices the size of a thumb drive available by the million. Then also pack the bomb body with plastic explosive.

A spokesman for Steel Hornets said that explosive was typically drawn from supplies for demolition work, or scavenged it from other munitions. For example, the UR-77 Meteorite demining system uses line charges filled with over 1,450 kilos / 3,200 pounds of plastic explosive to blast a path through minefields. One line charge contains enough explosives for several hundred drone bombs.

Steel Hornets are also exploring other ways for users to source explosive filler. With commercial plastic explosive costing just a few dollars a pound (the U.S Army pays $22 a pound for small demolition charges but they do not do things cheaply), it should not add much to the cost of the finished munition.

[…]

Steel Hornets produce three types of drone bomb: armor-piercing shaped charges for use against tanks and other vehicles, fragmentation weapons effective against personnel, and dual-purpose munitions which combine both functions. All three require considerable design, so munitions from Steel Hornets give a real advantage over garage-made or field-improvised alternatives.

The aerodynamics plastic bomb casings are 3D printed with fins to ensure they fall in straight. They are also well balanced so they can be carried without affecting the stable flight of the drone.

“It’s not the cheapest, but it’s a very flexible manufacturing method,” says the Steel Hornets spokesman.

It allows them to make in very small batches, and also to change the design instantly with no need for re-tooling. But the more significant element is inside.

[…]

For example Steel Hornet’s BP 75mm replacement for the standard PG-7 warhead weighs 850 grams/ 30 ounces, somewhat lighter than the original. In tests Steel Hornets’ shaped charge with a copper liner penetrated 180mm / 7 inches of steel plate. This is less than the original which can go through 260mm/ 10 inches of armor, but this is not seen as a problem.

“We are seeking a compromise between weight, size, and cost,” the Steel Hornets spokesman told Forbes. “Additionally, we are making the shaped charge jet thicker, which often results in more confident penetration, albeit slightly reducing the penetration thickness.”

[…]

The miniature tank busters are a bargain at $14 a time. As with other Steel Hornets products the minimum order is a box of five. This gives an idea of how different they are to traditional arms companies dealing in orders of thousands.

We either do this or we die

Monday, April 1st, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Musk’s tolerance for stress is high, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), but 2008 almost pushed him past his limits:

Some Tesla executives and board members felt that the deposits should have been kept in escrow rather than tapped for operating expense, but Musk insisted, “We either do this or we die.”

[…]

Musk’s friend Bill Lee invested $2 million, Sergey Brin of Google invested $500,000, and even regular Tesla employees wrote checks. Musk borrowed personally to cover his expenses, which included paying $170,000 per month for his own divorce lawyers and (as California law requires of the wealthier spouse) those of Justine. “God bless Jeff Skoll, who gave Elon money to see him through,” Talulah says of Musk’s friend, who was the first president of eBay. Antonio Gracias also stepped up, loaning him $1 million. Even Talulah’s parents offered to help. “I was very upset and called Mommy and Daddy, and they said they would remortgage their house and try to help,” she recalls. That offer Musk declined.

[…]

Talulah watched in horror as, night after night, Musk had mumbling conversations with himself, sometimes flailing his arms and screaming. “I kept thinking he was going to have a heart attack,” she says. “He was having night terrors and just screaming in his sleep and clawing at me. It was horrendous. I was really scared, and he was just desperate.” Sometimes he would go to the bathroom and start vomiting. “It would go to his gut, and he would be screaming and retching,” she says. “I would stand by the toilet and hold his head.”

[…]

He gained a lot of weight, and then suddenly lost it all and more. His posture became hunched, and his toes stayed stiff when he walked.

That seems to be a package

Monday, March 25th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonAfter pushing Martin Eberhard out of Tesla, Musk should have realized he’s not good at sharing power, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), but he installed a Tesla investor, Michael Marks, in the CEO position:

Marks had been the CEO of Flextronics, an electronics manufacturing services company, which he turned into a highly profitable industry leader by pushing a strategy that Musk liked: vertical integration.

[…]

Musk and Marks got along well at first.

[…]

But then, Marks made the mistake of believing he could steer the company rather than just carry out Musk’s wishes.

The first clash came when Marks concluded that Musk’s devotion to reality-defying schedules meant that supplies were ordered and paid for, even though there was no chance they would be used to build a car anytime soon. “Why are we bringing all these materials in?” Marks asked at one of his first meetings. A manager replied, “Because Elon keeps insisting that we will be shipping cars in January.” The cash flow for these parts was bleeding Tesla’s coffers, so Marks canceled most of the orders.

[…]

“Elon is just not a very nice person and didn’t treat people well,” says Marks, who was appalled that Musk had not even read most of his wife Justine’s novels.

[…]

“I told him that people won’t tell him the truth, because he intimidates people,” Marks says. “He could be a bully and brutal.”

[…]

During their debates over Marks’s proposal to outsource assembly of the Tesla, Musk became increasingly angry, and he had no natural filter to restrain his responses. “That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said at a couple of meetings. That was a line that Steve Jobs used often. So did Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Their brutal honesty could be unnerving, even offensive. It could constrict rather than encourage honest dialogue. But it was also effective, at times, in creating what Jobs called a team of A players who didn’t want to be around fuzzy thinkers.

Marks was too accomplished and proud to put up with Musk’s behavior. “He treated me like a child, and I’m not a child,” he says. “I’m older than he is. I had also run a twenty-five-billion-dollar company.” He soon left.

[…]

“I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs, which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’” Does that, I ask, excuse Musk’s behavior? “Maybe if the price the world pays for this kind of accomplishment is a real asshole doing it, well, it’s probably a price worth paying. That’s how I’ve come to think about it, anyway.” Then, after a pause, he adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be that way.”