Culture / Science

WebReduce: Programmers on Earth, Humans in Space

28 May 2022 2:00am, by
Toward a better future - Screenshot from end of Mitsubihi video On-orbit 3D Printing Technology for Fabrication of Satellite Antennas

In the year 2000, NASA engineer Ron Garret first heard about a new search engine named Google — in the Usenet newsgroup comp.lang.lisp. On a recent podcast he remembered pulling Google up in his Netscape Navigator browser — only to discover a fateful message at the bottom of its page: “We’re hiring.”

“I dashed off a resume and 15 minutes later, my phone rang.”

Garret reportedly became Google’s 104th employee. His personal site remembers his work as the lead engineer on the first release of AdWords. But it also highlights the ongoing cross-pollination between the high-tech sector and the space exploration of today.

And reminds us that when humankind explores space, it will be computer programmers who help get us there.

NASA computer scientist Margaret Hamilton standing next to a stack of books containing calculations she made for Apollo 11. The stack is as tall as she is.This month, Garret visited Adam Gordon Bell’s Corecursive podcast to recount debugging a glitch in the Lisp-based flight-control software that was only discovered “in production” — in a spacecraft millions of miles away.

But pioneering programmer Margaret Hamilton also had to debug code in outer space back in 1968. During the Apollo 8 mission, the astronauts who’d orbited the moon later inadvertently selected a pre-launch program — mistakenly overwriting data in the controller’s erasable memory.

And Hamilton’s bug was more serious, since Apollo 8 was a manned mission. In a recent interview Hamilton remembered that the heavy responsibilities of their work hung over every mission. “If it didn’t work a person’s life was at stake, if not over. That was always uppermost in my mind and probably many others as well.”

It’s perhaps the ultimate pressure — entrusting human-generated code to protect the lives of astronauts far away. So much so that in 1983 two young science fiction writers even teamed up on a story questioning the future of manned spaceflight itself.

In Red Star, Winter Orbit, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling describe an aging cosmonaut lingering for decades on a manned research facility that’s long-since been converted into the orbiting “Museum of Soviet Triumph in Space”, finally confronted with its decommissioning. (“Colonel Korolev twisted slowly in his harness, dreaming of winter and gravity,” the story begins…)

And as recently as 1996, researchers were arguing “The future of space is in information technology. We must establish a virtual presence in space, on planets, in aircraft, and spacecraft.”

Unmanned space technology continues returning a bonanza of scientific measurements. This week NASA released the results of 30-years worth of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope (in a paper titled “A Comprehensive Measurement of the Local Value of the Hubble Constant.”) Or, as the New Atlas site explains, “The new study makes the most precise measurement yet of how fast the universe is expanding” — while also pointing the way to future research.

And last week The New Stack looked at the next generation of that research, the $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope, calling it “the single greatest site reliability engineering lesson” (with 344 different single points of failure — all deployed a million miles away).

And yet here in 2022, humans are also still continuing to explore space undaunted…

Though he’d played a starship captain more than half a century ago, last week 91-year-old William Shatner remembered that when offered the chance to explore space in real life — he’d actually turned it down.

But only at first.

“Then I was thinking about it,” Shatner told the Niagara Falls Review. “About the thrill…” It’s been an ongoing theme for his entire life. After much internal debate, he decided to take that trip on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shepard 4 rocket, and last October, he became the oldest person, at age 90, to fly to space.

Shatner remembered that when he’d finally reached space for real, and for the very first time, he’d cried as he’d looked toward earth, “in grief for this beautiful thing I saw — this mote of dust that I saw in comparison to the vastness of space….”

“Everything we’re attached to is insignificant compared to the grandeur of the universe… It was a very profound time. I apparently said, ‘I don’t want to ever forget the way I feel.’ And I haven’t.”

That’s just one small part of humanity’s current and ongoing push into manned space missions. Just last year a NASA webpage touted its Artemis program’s goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024 — and then by 2028 establishing “sustainable missions”.

David Cassel
David Cassel is a proud resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has been covering technology news for more than two decades. Over the years his articles have appeared everywhere from CNN, MSNBC, and the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition to Salon, Wired News, Suck.com, and even the original HotWired, as well as Gawker, Gizmodo, McSweeney's, and Wonkette. He's now broadening his career skills by becoming a part-time computer programmer, developing two Android apps, co-producing two word games for Amazon Kindle, and dabbling in interactive fiction.

And the agency is now also working with sophisticated 3D printing companies “to build and assemble complex components in space” (as well as “on-demand hardware”). The ultimate goal? Rather than trying to launch a massive space habitat from the earth, it seems easier to construct one in space.

This month NASA administrator Bill Nelson paid a visit to Made in Space, Inc., one beneficiary of a novel public-private funding program called “Tipping Point” that’s partnered with NASA to pursue the mind-boggling technology.

In an upcoming test, a small spacecraft will print out two long beams — one 33 feet long, one 19 feet, but each one projecting out from the side of a spacecraft. NASA’s webpage explains that the beams will then “unfurl solar arrays that can generate up to five times more power than traditional solar panels on similar-sized spacecraft.” And NASA believes the same technology could one day print out an entire space telescope, or even support a moon base by printing out entire structures like habitats, fuel depots, or power grids.

On this month’s visit the NASA executive saw the raw materials that will become the beams, according to one local news report. (“Wound on a spool, slightly larger than the width of a basketball, the material feeds into the printer…”) One retired astronaut on the tour explained that “To survive launch loads, it’s just a filament on a reel, like a fishing reel,” as the material is carried into orbit on a powerful SpaceX rocket.

“You could never bring enough hardware and you could never anticipate exactly what you’ll need,” the company’s CEO added.

And since 90% of a launch’s cost are the weight of its materials, one Belgian magazine recently called the company’s founding in 2020 “an inflection point in the space technology race” as companies “began to imagine producing infrastructure in space instead of taking it onboard rockets.”

As Made in Space’s parent company RedWire opened its new European headquarters in Luxembourg, their COO called it “a game-changing technology,” for our moment in time “as humanity returns to the Moon and pushes out farther into the solar system.” Last month they announced their project had passed NASA’s Mission Critical Design Review (though its launch was scheduled “no earlier than 2023).” They’re now testing its engineering design — and building the spacecraft’s fight hardware.

But in another little-noticed announcement, a Mitsubishi-owned electronics company revealed its own specially-formulated resin that remains “stable in a vacuum,” and can be cheaply cured into a heat-resistant solid just by using the sun’s own ultraviolet rays. Mitsubishi envisions a world where satellites print out their own antenna dishes after they’ve reached orbit.

Screenshot from Mitsubihi announcement

“This technology gives small, cheap satellites some of the capabilities of large, expensive satellites, and paves the way to 3D printing very large structures in space,” Mitsubishi says in a promotional video.

This capability makes bigger structures possible — but also lighter and thinner structures (which might otherwise have had trouble surviving all the vibrations at take-off, described euphemistically as “the stresses of launch.”)

Last week Mitsubishi announced a patent for the technology — and the resin…

So our explorations of the cosmos continue unabated — both manned, unmanned, and with combinations of the two. And in a fitting coda, after two decades had passed William Gibson looked back on that short story collection which included that 1983 short story envisioning an end to manned spaceflights.

In a new introduction in 2003, Gibson had quipped that “nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future,” arguing that history itself is “the ultimate in speculative narrative, subject to ongoing and inevitable revision.”

And then in the last sentence of that introduction, Gibson had sardonically joked to his readers, “Enjoy the patina.”

Burning Chrome book cover (includes Red Star Winter Orbit)

Posted every month or so, David Cassel’s “WebReduce” column explores emerging trends through that ever-fresh and wide-ranging perspective of the internet hive mind.