Tomorrowland, brought to you by Tesla & SpaceX

The space-age electric car company, Tesla, have a new 10-year masterplan, amazing stuff which you can read here.  With the sheer technical ingenuity and Sci-fi level of aspiration it’s no surprise that I’ve become a fanboy of both these companies.

Planning – how to get to the future

Both Tesla & SpaceX were started with a fairly fantastical vision based on a step-by-step development and marketing plan. For companies that didn’t exist 14 years ago, they’ve been amazingly successful in those goals.  Along the way they have also influenced their respective industries, challenging competitors to become more responsive, competitive and efficient.  In doing so they’ve  changed the public perception of sustainability, electric transport and space exploration.


Tesla’s plan started off with a fast, expensive electric Roadster, before progressing to a big saloon (Model S), and then a family SUV (Model X) and the recently announced mass-market Model 3.  The automated driving is still in experimental stage, but alongside similar projects by Google and other vehicle manufacturers, this should lead to an improvement in road safety.  Their longer-term plans, as detailed in the link above, include pick-up trucks, buses, full automation, and integrated solar power and storage for homes.

SpaceX also had a masterplan, to develop a low-cost rocket, a delivery & return vehicle for the ISS, to learn from these and make them rapidly re-usable.  Remember these were previously always discarded, either crashing into the sea, burning up on re-entry, or for the returning vehicles, retired to a museum.  Millions of dollars and years of work and manufacturing lost each time.  Not to mention the lessons you can learn to make improvements.

Spectacular becomes routine

sy6csdvCRS-9 launch, showing launch arc (left), Stage 1 reentry burn (top) and landing burn. by @johnkrausphotos

That’s almost complete, with the Falcon 9 experimental landings getting more consistent, to the point that the press largely ignored Monday’s 2nd successful land landing (shown above in an amazing composite photo by John Kraus).  These are streamed live, and are spectacular to watch.  Here’s a link to just the landing portion of CRS-9 technical webcast.  There’s also a hosted version which gives more explanation of what’s going on and why they’re doing it, excellent for newcomers and great for kids.

The first re-used booster with a paying customer is likely to launch this autumn.  The next step, Falcon Heavy, sees three of the boosters being strapped together for bigger payloads or more distant destinations, *and* landing them, which should look like this:

The ISS cargo vehicle, Dragon, is being refitted to fly again in 2017, and 2017 will also see the first flight of a human rated version of Dragon.  A version of this vehicle is planned to go to  Mars (possibly returning a sample) in 2018.

Next stop, Mars

Now if that wasn’t scifi enough, SpaceX’s next masterplan is announced in September and will cover what’s needed to colonise Mars, inlcuding the vehicles (a Big “Falcon” Rocket and a Mars Colonial Transporter) and other resources needed.  The 2018 Red Dragon mission is likely to be a testbed for many aspects of these, including safe entry to the Mars atmosphere, identifying and landing on a suitable site, and possibly manufactuing fuel for return flights.

The reference in the title to Tomorrowland comes from the 2015 movie, which I saw with my daughter.  Although it’s obviously a fictional place, the “vision of the future scene” really captured her imagination, and so she asked if she could go there.  With moist eyes, I replied “You will, one day”.  The rocket landing featured in that scene became a reality by the end of the year, so who knows what she will live to experience?


taken from Tomorrowland (2015)


Of Brains and Men

A short one from me, for once!  But I needed to get this out of my head, either for general discussion with you clever people, or later research / procrastination (delete as appropriate).

Watching Game of Thrones last night it struck me how many stories we keep track of, whether it be long form TV drama, soaps, movie franchises, comics, novels or games.  I’m in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and will no doubt pick up the latest from George RR Martin whenever he finishes it.  Star Wars is 1/3 the way through a new trilogy, itself part of a wider set of stories in a universe where there are plenty of tales to tell.  I’m sure many of you are in a similar situation, whatever genre you’re into or medium you prefer.  You may also be a student of history, and have a deep understanding of the people and stories of a particular time.

Now for each of these fictional or historical universes, we understand those characters, their motivations and relationships, the rules that govern their worlds that don’t necessarily apply in ours.  They’re stored in our brains and we switch back into them each time we pick up a book or switch on the TV.

A certain amount of our brain’s capacity relates to these social rules and relationships.  Certainly, we see from Anthropology  that there seems to be a correlation here: Dunbar’s Number suggests that the average size of a social group for different species of primate relates to the volume of their neocortex.

So here’s my hypothesis: that as language evolved, and we recounted stories of our exploits, tales of our ancestors, our brain capacity grew, even if we lived in small groups.  Our stories became more fanciful, we invented fiction.  And now we see a huge proportion of our lives are based around these other worlds and relationships that are not our own.

This prompts a number of questions:

  • As a species are we continuing to expand our neocortex because of the diverse and complex stories we consume?
  • As individuals do we sacrifice real-world relationships for fictional ones, or does this help us expand our capacity?
  • Does the exposure to more points of view and a different set of rules help us to empathise  with others and adapt to situations outside our usual experience?


The lies of the land

In a previous post I attempted to trace some of the Roman roads around Ilkley using the definitive source by Ivan D. Margary. Whilst the catalogue is exhaustive, there were lots of speculative points in the route where the description was lacking, or there was just not enough archaeological evidence to say where the route went.  In other areas, there are doubts about whether certain roads were planned and built by the Romans, or merely laid over existing Celtic pathways.

I was still thinking about this when I returned to the library, and was very pleased to find John Poulter’s “The Planning of Roman Road and Walls in Northern Britain“, and Charlotte Higgins’ “Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain“.  Higgin’s book appears to be more of a travelogue, walking the pathways, and describing the landscape and subsequent history around the route.  I will write more of that when I’ve finished Poulter’s book.

Poulter is a retired engineer and archaeologist, and takes a systems engineering approach to tracing the road layout.  He notes that often there is a very accurate long distance alignment setting out from point A in the direction of point B, which then diverts off for landmarks and other sites.  His theory was that adjustments to the route would come at certain points because the planners climbed to the top of a hill, then spotted a new landmark.  Or river crossing points.  When you start to look at this on the ground you can see that roads were often planned long before they were built, were planned and constructed at different times and from different directions, hence we get odd deviations at times.

He’s used this principle to good effect, using the long distance planning lines to identify promising archeological sites, as well as explaining why some previous claims for Roman roads don’t always stand up to scrutiny.