Author Archives: J Simmons

Mach 30 Reimagines The Martian with Open Source

The Martian

What, no open source? (Image: Screen grab from The Martian’s official trailer)

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses several key details of The Martian.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, you have been warned.

It might be argued that Rich Purnell, “steely-eyed missile man“, is the true hero of The Martian. But you know what else could have helped save Mark Watney (in a much smarter, more efficient way)? Open sourcing.

Let’s back the story up a bit before we get into the details. Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is an astronaut stranded on Mars after a dust storm forces his crew to leave him behind. As he does his best to signal to Earth for help and stay alive, NASA and a team of scientists work together to bring him home.

Purnell (played by Donald Glover), NASA astrodynamicist, then devises a daredevil rescue, involving an alternate trajectory for the spacecraft Hermes (the same vehicle that brought the crew to Mars).

NASA’s original plan was to have the Hermes enter Earth orbit, resupply, and then fly back to Mars. The problem here is that it takes too long — Watney’s supplies are severely limited, and time is a critical element. The Rich Purnell Maneuver would have the Hermes skip entering Earth orbit altogether, and instead go around the Earth and fly straight back to Mars.

Purnell then proceeds to spend every waking moment calculating the details of the this trajectory and verifying it will work. He then flies out to present his work at a secret management team meeting, where it is summarily discarded as too risky.

Just when it appears that all hope is lost, Mitch Henderson (the Hermes Flight Director) disguises the Rich Purnell Maneuver as a family photo and sends it to the Ares 3’s resident orbital dynamicist aboard the Hermes, who then shares it with the rest of the crew. After reviewing Rich’s plan, the crew quickly decides to mutiny so they can save their crewmate (wouldn’t you?). To ensure mission control doesn’t interfere with their plan, the crew disables the Hermes remote overrides (all three of them) and changes course for Mars. The rest, as they say, is history.

All of this cloak and dagger activity makes for great drama, but it is no way to run a space program. What if the NASA in The Martian valued transparency over secrecy? What if the management team didn’t have to rely on just one veteran engineer’s evaluation of Rich’s work when deciding whether it would work? And, what if Rich’s proposed trajectory could have been developed by a team of volunteers from across the planet instead of being fueled by one man’s dedication and gallons of coffee?

NASA could have used its resources more efficiently, its management team could have had greater confidence in the Rich Purnell Maneuver, and Rich could have arrived at his proposal faster. All of this, and the crew wouldn’t have had to mutiny in order to save Mark. Applying open source principles to spaceflight, like we do at Mach 30, gives organizations all of these advantages. As the Mach 30 president and the team leader for our open source projects, I get to see first hand the impact these principles have every day.

Transparency is the core value that underlies the open source software and hardware movements. To put it simply, in open source, there should be no secrets, especially where failures are concerned. It’s clear that transparency is not a core value of The Martian’s version of NASA, which has huge impacts on people’s decisions.

Think about how much time is wasted at all layers of the organization in trying to keep the Rich Purnell Maneuver a secret (first when designing it, then hiding it, and ultimately implementing it). How much more efficient would it have been if Rich worked for a NASA where he could have simply said, “Hey. I have an idea to save Mark, but it is a little risky, so I am going to work on it as a side project for now”? Or, how about if the management team and the crew could have discussed the idea openly?

Linus’s Law, named after the developer behind the Linux kernel, says that with sufficient eyeballs, all bugs become shallow. The idea behind this law is that in open source software (and by extension hardware) the availability of more people to review and test a project leads to greater discovery of problems in that project. Greater discovery of problems means more problems get resolved before a project goes into production, making for a better project when it is released. Consider how much stronger the case for the Rich Purnell Manuever would have been (and in turn management’s confidence in the plan) if it had been developed as an open source project with many eyeballs discovering issues along the way instead of having to rely on just Vincent Kapoor’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) word that it would work.

Rich was only one man, spending many sleepless nights in his office, racing to calculate, verify, and document his proposal before the Hermes got too close to home to implement it. With the right tool, like Mach 30’s Mathematics Tool Kit (MTK), he could have shared this work with collaborators across the world. MTK’s unique combination of calculation and documentation environments in one tool would have allowed Rich to focus on defining the trajectory while other contributors wrote the code to calculate and test the trajectory. Still more engineers could spend their energy documenting and reviewing the results. By using MTK to break the work into smaller, more specialized parts, Rich (and his team) could have completed the proposal in far less time than Rich ever could alone (and with far fewer all-nighters in Rich’s office).

In summary, compared to the cloak and dagger we see in The Martian, applying open source principles to spaceflight would have gotten Rich to a finalized proposal faster, given management greater confidence in the proposal, and allowed NASA to spend its resources more efficiently (no mutiny required).

So, what do you think? How could you have contributed to the open source Rich Purnell Maneuver? Could you have helped spread the word to your social network to help raise awareness for this approach to save Mark? Could you have coded up some of the math? How about peer reviewing the code or the math? Or by doing something else? Let me know in the comments. And as always, ad astra per civitatem!

Mach 30 Update for March 2015

This post was co-authored by Mach 30 volunteer Aaron Harper.

The Mach 30 Reports Hangouts experiments have continued in February and March.  Our new format is a round table discussion of current events in space, making, and open source hardware, with a focus on events happening at Mach 30.  This new format is paying off and the result is this month’s reports hangout is well worth the time required to watch.

This month, we have a report on Alicia Gibb’s book Building Open Source Hardware in which some Mach 30 members and projects are featured. We had some HUGE news in the form of contributions to open source design software and great strides on simplifying export control compliance for open hardware projects.  Check it out below.

For those that prefer a written update on the status of Mach 30 projects, you can still check out the March Reports page on Google Drive.  Many of these topics from this month will have periodic updates.  Naturally they will be covered in the new and improved monthly reports hangouts at Mach 30, so STAY TUNED!

Our Favorite Moments from 2014

For those of you who don’t follow +Mach 30, the Board of Directors and volunteer leaders gather each month for an On Air Hangout to present status updates on our various projects.  These Reports Hangouts are very business focused which can make them “a little dry.”  We are actively discussing how we can address the business need for status updates and reach out to fans (existing and new) to share with them all the great things Mach 30 is doing.  As an experiment in the outreach side of this equation we did something different for the December Reports Hangout.  Instead of going through the list of active projects by “bus”, board members took turns sharing their favorite moments and accomplishments from 2014.  Highlights included hosting Apogee I at Club Cyberia (and how well our new planning rhythm worked: strategic planning in person at Apogee and annual planning online at Perigee), completing the first version of Ground Sphere, and Jeremy’s very awesome contributions to CadQuery (starting us down the path toward a rich and open CAD modeling package).

Thank you again to all of our volunteers and donors, we couldn’t do this without you.

Don’t forget to join in on the conversation.  Post your favorite Mach 30 moment in the comments below.

ad astra per civitatem – to the starts through community

The story of Mach 30 – Part 3: Mach 30 Is Born

This post is part of a special series celebrating the origins of Mach 30 in recognition of our fifth birthday.  Read the beginning of the story in part 1 and part 2.

Bench Top Satellite from AFIT Coursework

Bench Top Satellite from AFIT Coursework

Thanks to Maureen’s gift of my first Moleskine notebook and many discussions about its content, the central themes of Mach 30 started to come together.  With a clearer vision of what I was proposing as a path to sustainable space exploration, I managed to convince Maureen, Andy, and Bekah to help me make my dream a reality. And the four of us became the first leaders of what was then the Space Council, and would later become Mach 30. At first, not much changed. We met infrequently (quarterly or when someone had an idea to share, and that someone was usually me), but we could not get any traction on how to go from my notebooks and a few meetings to something more concrete.

In the mean time, I applied for the graduate program at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and Maureen and I moved to Dayton. Once we got there, I started to feel out the faculty and some local professionals to see how our ideas sounded to members of the aerospace industry (by then, we were already incorporating group work into the ideas of the Space Council). And, unsurprisingly, the results were disappointing. No one who could be considered part of the establishment could wrap their head around the concept of non-profit, open source space exploration. In order to not rock the boat at school too much (I did still need these people to support me long enough to get my masters degree), I became more selective in who I shared these ideas with.

As luck would have it, in the fall of 2008, I took a satellite design class with Greg. This was the first time we met. He was still a Lieutenant and was taking classes at AFIT part time during his first tour in the Air Force. I can still remember the day I first told him about the Space Council. We were working in the labs running a day long thermal vacuum test on a small bench top satellite, and had nothing but time to kill.  Being two geeks obsessed with space exploration, both professionally and personally, it did not take long for us to start talking about what got us interested in space.

Slowly but surely, we crept toward what in some ways could only be considered heretical ideas. NASA and the Air Force were not going to bring us into a spacefaring future in our lifetimes. We both desperately wanted to go into space, and the only way to do so was to build our own space ships. But how could that ever happen?

We needed to think outside the box.

Somewhere during the conversation, I realized Greg was a kindred spirit, and so I started to tell him about the Space Council. In those days it took me a long time to even get that far in a conversation. And I ran out of time before I could get into the whole story. But, Greg was intrigued, so we agreed to meet for lunch later that week. I believe it was over smoothies and sandwiches. And over lunch, I gave him the whole spiel. After nearly and hour, he was asking how he could help, and I invited him to a meeting.

It turns out, Greg was just what we needed. He has a very no nonsense, get things done attitude and almost from day one he pushed for incorporating the organization and applying for 501c3 status. It’s amazing what incorporating and having to actually run an organization will do for encouraging people to get things done. By January 2009 we had become an Ohio not for profit and Mach 30 was born.

J. Simmons wishing Mach 30 a Happy Birthday

J. Simmons wishing Mach 30 a Happy Birthday

So, now we are five years in, and I couldn’t be more thrilled at our progress and our future.  We have a website dedicated to hosting open source hardware projects, a strong and very active task force to address export controls, and two very exciting open source spaceflight hardware projects (Shepard Test Stand & Ground Sphere Ground Station).  And later this year we will be inviting our volunteers and supporters to join us for a multi-day planning and celebration event we are calling Apogee (stay tuned for details).  Here’s to another five years and more!  Many, many thanks to all of those who have helped get us to where we are today and to those who are helping build the future of Mach 30.

You too can help build the future of Mach 30.  Show your support for open source spaceflight by joining the Catalyst Club and then helping spread the word about Mach 30 and its programs on social media and at your local makerspace/school/scouting troop.

ad astra per civitatem

The story of Mach 30 – Part 2: The Ideas Behind Mach 30 Take Shape

This post is part of a special series celebrating the origins of Mach 30 in recognition of our fifth birthday.  Read the beginning of the story in part 1 and continue the story with part 3.

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Final Report, credit NASA

After growing up with NASA’s Space Shuttle program and dreaming of becoming an astronaut for more than a decade, I started to lose faith in NASA during the early years of this century. Their human spaceflight program had stalled out in the wake of the Columbia accident, and I learned more and more about why the shuttle program had failed to live up to its expectations. This led to my eventual conclusion that waiting on NASA to create the opportunities for space exploration I was dreaming of was the wrong approach. Modern history had shown Congress was unlikely to dedicate the time and funds necessary to build a long lasting space exploration program.  And, NASA’s history, while full of great accomplishments, is one of fits and starts, not sustainable growth and expansion.

I realized the only way my dream of space exploration could become a reality was to take matters into my own hands. So I started mulling over why NASA couldn’t accomplish the goals I dreamed of and what would need to change to make those goals possible. And I talked about my thoughts to anyone who would listen, which mostly turned out to be Maureen, Bekah, and Andy (all of whom would eventually become founding members of the Mach 30 Board).

I think Maureen must have gotten a little tired of listening to my constant monologues. And I’m sure that she knew I needed to do more than talk about my ideas if they were going to go anywhere beyond arm chair quarterbacking the space industry. So, she bought me a Moleskine notebook and told me to write down what I was telling her and Andy and Bekah. She also started buying me very select management books she had seen in her MFA Arts Administration program.

So I wrote, and I read, and I wrote, and I talked, and I repeated the entire process. I still have the old notebooks that I used to gather and sort and refine my ideas. At least a year went by before things started to come together a little. Ideas that came out of this period included:

  • Space is too expensive and too long a payoff to implement the fundamental work we need to do in a for-profit enterprise, so we needed a non-profit organization to do this work
  • We needed to open source spaceflight so we could do for space what open source software had done for the computing industry
  • This is too big a problem for one group to tackle. Could there be something like an arts council for space exploration? For many years this idea had such a tight hold on the group of people involved that we called the project the Space Council. Nowadays, I think a better model is the Apache Software Foundation, but this post is more about yesterday than today.
  • The vehicles, stations, and other hardware we need to explore our solar system effectively do not yet exist, and developing this hardware is a very distinct process from actually exploring space. It seemed that we would need two very distinct groups to accomplish the dream: the builders and the explorers. Sometimes called “developers” and “operators”
  • Everyone involved should be able to come down to see the fruits of the organization’s labors so they could connect with the dream personally. And there is strength in interdisciplinary sharing. So we need a single base of operations where developers, operators, business, support, and all teams can come together to work and share. Many times this has been envisioned as a campus-like facility that blends nature, work, life, and technology seamlessly
  • We need reusable launch vehicles if we are to truly open space access for all

Many of these themes are probably familiar to Mach 30 volunteers as they form the core of what Mach 30 is today. And those that are not yet visible are probably hidden mostly due to our not having reached the stage where we need to implement them.  But rest assured, the day will come when Mach 30 will proudly announce the development of its headquarters and the beginning of a reusable launch vehicle program.

Mach 30’s Vision circa 2008

This post is part of a series.  Read the beginning of the story with part 1 and continue the story with part 3.