Idling on the sofa at home after a meeting, the Badger wanted to do nothing more energetic than watching a Netflix film. Whatever he watched, the Badger knew it would probably have something in common with the meeting he attended, namely that it would be much longer than it needed to be! With low expectations that it would keep his attention for the duration, the Badger selected the documentary film ‘Return to Space’ about SpaceX’s activities to deliver astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS). The film proved more engaging than expected. Why? Not because it features Elon Musk, but because the Badger, as an IT professional and delivery leader with strong roots in science and engineering, could relate from his own career experiences to the SpaceX team’s dedication and hard work, and their relief and exhilaration when their goals were met.
After the documentary ended, the Badger’s lasting impressions centred on four things. The first was that this endeavour would not have been possible without a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. This should inspire youngsters to study STEM subjects and develop their careers accordingly. The second was that the whole leadership and management were disciplined and entirely focused on important milestones, solving problems, and the ultimate goal. No team will deliver without focused, disciplined, objective, and committed leadership and management. The third was the excellent teamwork, testing, risk mitigation, and fact-based rigour in decision making on display. Those involved were motivated, clear on their roles and responsibilities, and stood by the decisions and judgement calls made. The fourth thing was that Information Technology and integrated computer systems were at the heart of absolutely everything.
Anyone who has worked on major programmes and been there when the ultimate goal is achieved can relate to the palpable relief, job satisfaction, and euphoric pride shown by everyone on the SpaceX team when they delivered the two astronauts to the ISS and returned them safely to Earth. There’s nothing like the feeling of personal and professional satisfaction and elation that every team member, not just those in leadership positions, feels when a programme or project delivers. It’s a great feeling!
As he rose from the sofa, the Badger’s smartphone announced the arrival of an email from British Gas. They had emailed the previous day saying that the Badger’s energy account had been migrated to a new system. The new email simply notified that an energy statement was available online. With a sense of foreboding, the Badger logged into his energy account and found all was not well. SpaceX and British Gas may not be in comparable industries, but in ‘Return to Space’ the former cared that they got things right and delivered progress. Sadly, the opposite seems true for British Gas. Perhaps they need a dose of Elon Musk…
The Badger’s always been open-minded, but on the back of the rah-rah about billionaire’s travelling to the edge of space, G.K Chesterton’s comment ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out’ sprang to mind. It may be a step forwards for commercial space activities but with so many problems to solve here on earth, what’s the real benefit to mankind of billionaires puffing out their chests on becoming a space tourist? In fact, what’s the benefit to mankind of space tourism and the commercialisation of space, period? If you have the luxury of unconstrained independent philosophical thought, then you get to the answer ‘not a lot’ quite quickly. After decades open-mindedly supporting space technology that helps us understand the universe and our home planet, the Badger finds himself questioning the wisdom of the modern ‘space race’ and space commercialisation.
The modern space race is driven, in one form or another, by entities desiring ‘control and dominance’. There are dreams of harvesting valuable resources from other planets and of humans as a multi-planetary species, but it’s beginning to feel like mankind will have seriously declined on our home planet long before such dreams are realised in a way that brings benefit to the masses. It’s okay to have a vision and dreams, but when it was 1972 that the last person stood on the moon, and presence on the International Space Station since confirms that humans are biologically unsuited to being away from the home planet for lengthy periods, then there’s an obvious case to be made for focusing more on getting better equilibrium between mankind and our own planet than on space endeavours. Future astronauts might, apparently, be ‘gene-edited’ to overcome these biological issues, but that’s no benefit to mankind or our planet today when it really matters. (It could also mean that humans ultimately morph into being the intergalactic ‘plague of locust’ baddies that are often depicted in sci-fi series and movies. That’s not an attractive legacy for future generations).
Hats off to Messrs. Branson and Bezos for achieving their few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before returning safely to earth, but their money would be better spent helping mankind live in better equilibrium with the planet they briefly left. After all, if your home starts to fall apart around you, most rational people will spend their money fixing it rather than buying an expensive luxury that does nothing to address the immediate problem.
With space debris already a growing problem, commercial satellite mega-constellations like Starlink already being considered as ‘pollutants’ of the night sky and disrupters of astronomy, then perhaps it’s time to reprioritise away from space back to achieving sustainable, equilibrium between mankind and it’s home planet. Perhaps the time has come not to be so open-minded about the vested interests of space commercialisation that our brains fall out.
A client and their supplier were at loggerheads. The former was withholding payment of a large milestone payment and the latter was threatening to turn off IT systems they ran for the client unless payment was made. The impasse had rumbled on for some time with both parties using expensive lawyers to pore over a poor contract. The client asked the Badger for a completely independent view on what to do. A poisoned chalice, especially when and it was quickly apparent that uncompromising and intransigent personalities on both sides were at the heart of the problem.
A solution was found by facilitating awareness on both sides that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. The client was withholding payment and supplier threatening to turn off IT because they could, regardless of any contract, but neither was a sensible or ethical thing to do. Both parties eventually realised this. Ultimately the client paid the money, the supplier withdrew threats to turn off IT, personalities on both sides were changed, and lawyers were redirected from a litigation path into improving the poor contract. Things slowly normalised and the Badger was ultimately thanked for reminding everyone that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ should never be forgotten when times are difficult.
The other day this phrase came to mind again when reading about a Russian company proposing to use microsatellites for celestial advertising in the night sky, Estee Lauder making a product advert on the Internal Space Station (ISS), the winner of a proposed reality TV show getting a seat on the 2023 mission to the ISS, and the impact on the night sky of Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite constellation.
Surely the commercialisation of Space illustrates not only human ingenuity and creativity, but also human stupidity! One of the joys of life is to step into a cloudless night and peer at the stars, just like our ancestors have done for thousands of years. It’s doubtful that many of us really want that to be interfered with, but it seems inevitable that it will be. We have a habit of slowly polluting or destroying whatever environment we touch – the ground, the sea, the air, and even the internet and social media – and the Badger finds it rather sad that the night sky is the next in line.
Have our leaders considered ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ with regard to Space commercialisation and our night sky? No chance. Why? Well there may be a clue in the final lines of Monty Python’s ‘The Galaxy Song’ from the 1983 film ‘The Meaning of Life’:
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!
Quite! A sentiment from 37 years ago that still resonates strongly today…
When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.
OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.
Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.
By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…
It’s 30 years since the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system. When reading about it, see here and here, the Badger was struck by the obvious fragility of our existence on a planet that’s barely a speck of dust in the Universe!
The picture caused the Badger to if our Space ambitions align with the interests of human life and our planet. The oversight of projects involving very talented ‘Space techies’ developing software for interplanetary missions, earth observation, and satellite control featured many times during the Badger’s career, and it’s pictures like the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that are good reminders to stay realistic about ‘Space – the final frontier’. It’s right that we should have ambitions, dreams, and scientific knowledge pertinent to Space, but it’s also right to regularly wonder if we have our priorities right. This decade sees US astronauts return to the Moon and a raft of other missions led by different countries and commercial organisations. There’s a view that Space is the new ‘Wild West’ and that ‘Space has shifted from a place purely to ‘go’ to a place to do business’. Hard to disagree! The global Space market will double to ~£400 billion by 2030, so this decade could see Space really become the ‘Wild West’ given it’s no longer the preserve of just governmental agencies but of private companies jockeying for position and commercial advantage as well.
Staring at the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the Badger cogitated on our Space priorities given the importance of preserving life and our speck of dust in the Universe. After doing some reading, perusing recent items like those here, here, and here, and some research on how Space impacts our bodies, the Badger quickly formed an opinion. Unmanned Space exploration makes sense and helps the scientific and engineering advancement needed to benefit human life and our planet, but manned Space exploration is an expensive holy grail because biologically and psychologically we are designed for Earth and do not adapt well to extended periods in Space. What’s the point in putting humans in Space at vast expense when robots are better suited to the hostile environment? As the video here concludes, using robots will tell us more about our planet and the solar system, whereas using astronauts tells will tell us mostly about ourselves.
Has the time come for man to curtail manned Space exploration and use the money for urgent human life and on-Earth planet sustainability initiatives instead? The Badger thinks ‘probably’. Just an opinion…you should have one too! Surely The sustainability of humans on our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is much more important to us, our children, and our grandchildren than man in Space will ever be. After all, a Wild West in Space in the coming years is no use to anyone if we, or our speck of dust, disappear.
On Christmas Day the Badger and his wife, supping mid-morning coffee while chatting about the mild weather, saw a Bumble Bee fly past the kitchen window and land on a daisy flower in the garden. We had never seen a big fat Bumble Bee in the garden on Christmas Day before! Previous Christmases have had bleaker weather, often colder with heavy frosts and occasionally snow. Indeed, a decade ago the weather was truly bleak at Christmas and since then we have noticed that the festive season’s weather getting noticeably milder. We decided that this year’s Bumble Bee sighting must be (unscientific) evidence of climate change.
As we finished our coffees, we were joined by another family member who seemed thoughtful as they watched the lone Bumble Bee fly off into the next garden. We all speculated what we would see if the scene was replayed in Christmas 2029, and the family member made an unexpected prediction, namely that in 2029 there would be lots more native flowers in bloom at Christmas but no sign of any Bumble Bees! They also predicted that there would be more OneWeb and Starlink satellites orbiting the Earth at Christmas 2029 than Bumble Bee sightings in our garden for the whole year! Hmm. The Badger asked for some rationale.
A discussion ensued, and – put simply – the underpinning rationale seemed to be the following. Firstly, a view that technology, the internet, and instant information is the utility of modern life, that it has destroyed privacy, and that the OneWeb and Starlink satellite constellations merely provide a ‘Phase 2’ reinforcement of these same points! Secondly, a belief that over the last decade our global leaders have pandered to vested interests and failed to act on any of the big issues that affect life on our planet. Thirdly, that this will not change in the next decade. And finally, a belief that political, commercial and vested interests always win out over what really matters to the lives of the vast majority of people…and Bumble Bees! Essentially, the family member predicts that we’ll be able to watch endless YouTube videos and movies anywhere on Earth in 2029, but we’ll be no further forward in addressing the big sustainability issues affecting life for all species on the planet.
Time will tell if this is a fair point of view, but the Badger’s more optimistic. We are where we are. None of us can change history, but we all have a voice and can influence the future. So please think about what’s right for species like Bumble Bees in your New Year resolutions. They need your support to survive, and we all need them more than we realise for our own sustainability on this planet. ‘We need Bumble Bees more than we need huge constellations of satellites’. Hopefully our leaders will listen, or Christmas 2029 will be grim…
Professor Brian Cox is currently embarked on his ‘Universal: Adventures in Space & Time’ World Tour. The Badger, and 4000 others from all walks of life, saw him when his tour came to Bournemouth recently. This preview gives a flavour of his show’s coverage, and the opening minutes of an actual show are here.
Brian spoke for over two hours, which might seem daunting if you think you’ll struggle with the underlying concepts of space, time, the big bang, general relativity, black holes and cosmology! But don’t be put off. The Professor is an excellent educator and communicator, and his show explains things simply and leaves you in awe of the Universe and our position in it. His tour moves to the Nordic countries next. If you get chance, go see it.
The show provides insight to the scale of our Galaxy and the whole Universe, and a reminder of just how insignificant our planet and humans are in the scale of things. It leaves you realising how important it is that our planet is sustainable because it’s delusional to think we have somewhere else to go! The Badger and friends chatted after the show. One made the point that while the Hubble telescope (for example) helps us to understand the Universe, the technology to put a human on Mars is not even a pin prick of the technology needed for ‘Star Trek’ space travel, so why bother? We concluded that technology development must always centre on the need for our planet to support sustainable life, rather than on consumerism, corporate power, convenience and commercial advantage. Idealistic? Perhaps. But there’s nothing wrong with that!
A few days later, Greta Thunberg spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit and the media was awash with pictures and comment. Her transcribed words are here. The Badger found himself not only wondering who’s behind this young lady, but also disagreeing with assertions about the betrayal of young people. (See also here and here). Perhaps Greta and the likes of Extinction Rebellion are approaching climate matters in the wrong way?
The Badger feels we need better, earlier, education that our planet and our species are but a speck of tiny dust in the scale of the Universe. When this is reinforced it becomes obvious that we create our own extinction if we don’t focus on our planet and technological developments dominated by planet sustainability. Education is a powerful force, and Professor Brian Cox wields that force like a Jedi knight. Put some of his tour show content into the school curriculum at an early age to influence the thinking of future generations and society and the planet will benefit…