Posts Tagged‘success’

The Beginner’s Guide: Where For Art Thou Coda?

We gamers sometimes forget how personal games are for their creators. Often they’re a reflection both the creator’s intent and the creator themselves, especially for games that are created by one person or small independent studios. I think this is partly due to the arms-length relationship most of us have with games due to the developer/publisher ecosystem, something which removes much of the potential for a personal connection. The Beginner’s Guide however is a game that attempts to connect with the player on a very personal level and, I feel, is the developer’s way of working through some of the issues he endured after the success of a previous title.

The Beginners Guide Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The Beginner’s Guide is a narrated collection of games from the developer’s friend who’s named Coda. They’re a loose set of quirky titles, many of which defy conventional gaming standards by having things like unsolvable puzzles, areas of grand detail that are completely inaccessible and mechanics that are actively hostile towards the player. The narrator wants to show you these titles because he wants to encourage Coda to start making games again and feels like the only way to do so is to show his craft to the wider world. Whether that will be effective or not is something we might never know, but that might not be the most interesting thing about The Beginner’s Guide.

Graphically The Beginner’s Guide certainly feels like a group of cobbled together games with varying art styles permeating throughout the course of the game. Knowing that it’s built on the Source engine gives you some insight into where the aesthetic is coming from as it does feel like an overgrown set of mods for Half Life. Apart from that there’s not much to speak of in terms of visual aesthetic as the game is much more about the levels themselves, rather than how they look.

The Beginners Guide Review Screenshot Wallpaper Prison

MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Now this is usually the point in the review where I give you an overview of the mechanics and gameplay before I delve into each of them to give you a feel for what you can expect. However with The Beginner’s Guide, whilst there are mechanics which I could discuss, I don’t feel that’s the real point of the game at all. Instead The Beginner’s Guide is a well crafted narrative, told through the medium of games, about how the game’s developer (Davey Wreden of The Stanley Parable fame) struggled with the burden of success. Indeed it becomes very clear towards the end that Coda is a fictional character and these creations that we’re playing through are actually the product of the narrator who is dealing with his issues through the creation of this game.

I’ll admit that for the vast majority of the game I played along, figuring that this was just a quirky set of games that was cobbled together for the fun of it. Indeed there was a part of me that was annoyed at Wreden for doing so, charging me $10 for the privilege of playing games he himself did not create. However towards the end, where it’s revealed that Coda had abandoned Wreden because he simply couldn’t be around him any more, it becomes clear that this is a story of fiction. At that point though the game changed for me, instead of wondering who Coda was and why he left now I wanted to know why Wreden would create something like this. It didn’t take long to find out.

The Beginners Guide Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Machine

After rifling through numerous discussion threads I eventually landed on his blog, specifically the most recent post which is about The Stanley Parable’s widespread acclaim. In it he details what the success of that game has meant to him and the burden which he feels he carries for everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might not have reached the level of fame and acclaim that he has I can very much relate to the burden that success can bring to you; how success is supposed to negate all feelings of doubt or worry and erase all problems in your life. Indeed success can do quite the opposite, often dredging up issues or exacerbating current ones.

The Beginner’s Guide then serves as a catharsis for all these feelings, an expression of all the mixed feelings that a creator feels when their work is recognised and praised widely. The not-so-subtle hints towards Coda’s creative machine no longer working, the fear of being public, wanting to recluse himself away from society, all these take on new meaning when you realise they’re actually about the developer himself and not the fictional being of Coda. In that regard The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most personal games I’ve ever played and I’m very glad I did.

The Beginners Guide Review Screenshot Wallpaper Final Maze

The Beginner’s Guide is a personal journey, both for the player and the developer. It’s Davey Wreden working through his trials and tribulations that the success of The Stanley Parable brought him and you’re along here for the ride. Indeed The Beginner’s Guide shows how games can be used as a medium to work through things like this, just like more traditional mediums have been in the past. It might not be a game for everyone, especially for those expecting something more along the lines of The Stanley Parable, but it’s a wonderful experience all the same. One that had me playing long after I closed the game down.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Beginner’s Guide is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.5 hours.

Success vs Progress vs Passion.

Like most people who’ve made their career in IT I’ve spent a great deal of my spare time dabbling in things that (I hope) could potentially lead onto bigger things somewhere down the line. Nearly all of them start off with a burst of excitement as I dive into it, revelling in the challenge and marvelling at the things I can create if I just invest the time into them. After a while however that passion starts to fade into the background, slowly being replaced by the looming reality of the challenge I’ve set myself. In all but one cases this has eventually led to burn out, seeing the project shelved so that I can recoup and hopefully return to it. The only project to ever survive such a period was this blog, but even it came close to being shut down.

Site StatsShown above are the stats for this blog over the past couple years and each of the big changes tells a story. As you can see for a long while there was a steady increase in traffic, something which constantly drove me forward, to keep me writing even when I wondered why I was bothering. Then the slow decline started happening and I honestly couldn’t tell you why it was happening. Then I stumbled onto the fact that 20% of my visitors were disappearing between the search engine and my site, indicating that my blog was just loading far too slow for most people to bother waiting for it. Migrating the server to a new host saw an amazing spike in traffic, one that continue its upwards trend for a very long time.

Of course I eventually got curious as to why this was and found that that the majority of users weren’t visiting my site per se, they were just incidental visitors thanks to Google’s Image search. I had figured that this wouldn’t last, dreading the day when the hit came, and when it did the drop in traffic was significant and brutal. Indeed I had come so close to one of my personal goals (20K visits in a month) that losing it all was a big hit to my confidence as a blogger. Still the always upwards trend continued and motivation remained steady, that was until the start of this year when, inexplicably, I took yet another hit.

Try as I might to diagnose the issue the downward trend continued and, unfortunately, my motivation began to follow it. It all came to a head when my site got compromised and I inadvertently deleted my entire web folder, leaving me to wonder if it was worth even bothering to resurrect it. Of course I eventually came to my senses but I’d be lying if I said that my motivation for this wasn’t in some way linked to the number of page views I get at the end of each day.

I had mulled over writing this post for a long time, not to start a pity party or anything like that, more as a catharsis for my current situation. Honestly I had felt that there was something wrong with me as I should have been doing this for the love of it, not for the ego stroke reward that a page view is. However reading over Scott Adam’s (creator of Dilbert) treatise on how to be successful struck a cord with me, showing me that I’m not alone in being motivated by passions that ultimately get dashed by the lack of success. This blog then was the example that getting results is the way to keep yourself motivated and it should come as no surprise that it went away when the apparent success did as well.

For now I’m simply taking it day by day, continuing what I’ve always been doing and enjoying the act of writing more than the pageviews. It’s been helped somewhat by the fact that I’ve been able to make some changes that have directly resulted in little bumps in traffic, nothing crazy mind, but enough to show that I’m on the right track. It’s going to be a long time before I reach the dizzying heights that I was at just under a year ago but hopefully those numbers will be genuine, a real reflection of the effort I’ve put into this place since I began it almost 5 years ago.

 

Don’t Get Me Wrong, Kickstater is Great, But…

The idea behind Kickstarter is a great one: you’ve got an idea and you’ve got the fixins of a potential business going but the financial barrier of bringing it to market are keeping you from seeing it through. So you whip up a project on there, promise people rewards or (more commonly) the actual product you’re intending to sell and then wait for backers to pledge some cash to you. For the backers as well its great as if the project doesn’t get fully funded then no one has to donate any money, so your potential risk exposure is limited. Of course Kickstarter take their slice of the action, to the tune of 5% (plus another 3~5% for the payment processing) so everyone comes out a winner.

It’s a disruptive service, there’s no denying that. There are many products that wouldn’t have made it through a traditional venture capital process that have become wild successes thanks to Kickstarter. This of course gets people thinking about how those traditional systems are no longer needed, I mean who needs venture capitalists when I can get my customers to fund my project? Well whilst I’d love to believe that all we need for funding is crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter I can’t help but notice the pattern of most of the successful endeavours on there.

They’re all done by people who were already successful in the traditional business world.

Take for instance the latest poster child for the success of Kickstarter: The Double Fine Adventure. For gamers the Double Fine name (and the man behind it, Tim Schafer) is a recognizable one, having worked on such cult classics as The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and releasing others such as Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. Needless to say he’s quite well known and made his name in the traditional game developer/publisher world. Kickstarter has allowed him to cut the publishers out of this particular project, putting more cash in his pocket and allowing him total control of it, but could someone without that kind of brand recognition pull off the same level of success?

The answer is no.

For all the successes that are seen through Kickstarter only 44 percent of them will ever actually get the funding they require. Indeed in the Video Games category the highest funded game (there are a lot of projects in there that aren’t exactly games) before the Double Fine Adventure managed about $72,000. Sure it’s nothing to sneeze at, it was almost 6 times what they needed, but it does show the disparity between relative nobodies attempting a to crowdfund a project and when a well known person attempts the same thing. Sure there are the few breakout successes, but for the majority of large funding successes you’ll usually see someone who’s already known in that area involved somehow.

Now I don’t believe this is a bad thing, it’s just the way the process works. Nothing has really changed here, except the judgement call is shifted from the venture capitalists to the wider public, and as such many of the same factors influence if, when and how you get funded. Name recognition is a massive part of that, I mean just take a look at things like Color that managed to pull in a massive $41 million in funding before it had even got a viable product off the ground just because of the team of people that were behind the idea. Kickstarter doesn’t change this process at all, it’s just made it more visible to everyone.

Does this mean I think you should keep away from Kickstarter? Hell no, if you’ve got a potential product idea and want to see if there’s some kind of market for it Kickstarter projects, even if they’re not successful, are a great way of seeing just how much demand is out there. If your idea resonates with the wider market then you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free publicity, much more than what you’d get if you just approached a bank for a business loan. Just be aware of what Kickstarter does and does not do differently to traditional ways of doing business and don’t get caught up in the hype that so often surrounds it.

A Successful Progress Launch, A Brighter Future for the ISS.

It was just over 2 months ago when a Russian Progress craft crashed shortly after lift off. It was a devastating blow for the International Space Station project as the Progress spacecraft and the Proton rocket it rides to space on are the lifeline that keeps the ISS going. The failure of a Progress craft also called into question the man-rated Soyuz craft as they’re quite similar craft and should they be unable to launch that would effectively spell the end of human activities on the ISS. Investigations into the disaster continued and they finally nailed down the cause of the failure.

The cause turned out to be contamination of the fuel lines in the Progress craft. This in turn caused a low fuel supply to the gas generator which the on board computer interpreted as a fault and shut down the engines completely. This left the craft on a sub-orbital trajectory eventually leading it to crash in the Atlai region in Russia. The investigation revealed that this particular fault was of no immediate threat to either the Progress or Soyuz craft however so Roscosmos saw no need to delay any of the following flights further than they already had. 

Yesterday then saw the first launch of Progress since the incident back in August, and thankfully it was completely successful:

An unmanned Russian cargo ship launched toward the International Space Station Sunday (Oct. 30) packed with nearly three tons of supplies for the orbiting lab’s crew in what marked the first delivery run to the station since an August rocket crash.

The cargo ship, called Progress 45, lifted off atop a Soyuz rocket at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT) from a launch pad at the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome. It will arrive at the space station early Wednesday.

The successful launch of the Progress craft means that missions using the manned Soyuz craft can continue on without fear of them failing in the same way. This is crucial to the on going ISS mission as prior to this launch the future of the manned crews was in question and could have resulted in the ISS being unmanned for the first time in a decade. The reasoning behind this is simple, if the Progress and Soyuz are grounded then there’s no launch system that can take over their capability. Sure we have things like the JAXA HTV and the ESA ATV which are proven cargo delivery vehicles but they’ve both only launched once and neither could keep up with the rapid launch rate that the Progress offers. The Soyuz is the only means we currently have to get people onto the ISS and it being grounded would effectively end our ability to keep a human presence there.

With the shakedown of the Progress complete and the mission looking to be a success it looks like we’ll be able to reinstate the full crew size of 6 in the ISS. Whilst the station can be run with only a crew of 3 (indeed it was for the majority of its life) there’s a lot more work that can be done when the crew is doubled, especially if EVAs are required. With the SpaceX Dragon demonstration missing rapidly approaching we’re not far off having another means with which to reach the ISS. As these recent events have shown having another launch capability is critical to ensuring that our missions in space can continue uninterrupted and hopefully we’re not too far off a time when there’s more than just 2 manned launch providers.

Why I Want to Read About Failure More Than Success.

With my daily helping of all things TechCrunch, GigaOM, VentureBeat and what have you I pretty much can’t go a day without hearing about yet another up and coming start-up that’s poised to take the world by storm. Whilst I was developing Lobaco these kinds of stories were the inspiration fuel that kept me going as it seemed like even the most wacky ideas were securing funding and it was my fervent belief that should I follow in their footsteps that I’d then also reach some level of success. Of course 1 year and 1 failed Y-Combinator application later taught me that the road to success isn’t always paved in the same way for you as it is for others.

Indeed I vented my frustrations with all these positive stories, likening it to inspiration fatigue.

After coming to that realization I started trying to seek out the stories of failure, stories of people who were in situations like mine and what caused their idea to fail. Such stories would provide me with a framework of what to avoid and what I should be doing that I’m not doing now giving me a much better shot at achieving success. Trying to find such information amongst my feed reader proved to be quite fruitless except for the tales of large companies that were in the long downward spiral of decline. This is to be expected however as a failing start-up that’s only received seed or series A level funding doesn’t seem like much of a story since 90% of them fail anyway.

The Startup Genome project then was exactly what I was looking for as when I first read about them they were looking to gather information from both sides of the table. I’ll be honest though I was sceptical that they’d ever come up with anything, figuring they were just another think tank that would use metrics that no one could be reasonably expected to apply to the real world. That all changed when I read their first report, especially their insights on premature scaling:

Since February we’ve amassed a dataset of over 3200 high growth technology startups. Our latest research found that the primary cause of failure is premature scaling, an affliction that 70% of startups in our dataset possess.
The difference in performance between startups that scale prematurely and startups that  scale properly is pretty striking. We found that:
 – No startup that scaled prematurely passed the 100,000 user mark.
 – 93% of startups that scale prematurely never break the $100k revenue per month threshold.
 – Startups that scale properly grow about 20 times faster than startups that scale prematurely.
To me that paragraph is worth more than 1000 success stories as it outlines pretty clearly where the real problem is for a high technology start up. What really did it for me though was this infographic from visually that made the report’s information very clear on what constitutes premature scaling and how to identify it within your startup. The real value though was in the breakdown of the stages of a start up and what a consistent start up should be expecting to be doing at each stage in their life cycle. I found that far more inspiring than reading about yet another start up passing the 1 million user mark in some crazy record time.
Reading the Startup Genome report was enough to convince me that I’m on the right track now with my latest idea, even if it feels like I’ve been making progress at a rate much slower than other people seem to be capable of. I’m still very much in the discovery stage at the moment but my small bit of validation that I’ve done with people in my target market suggests that this idea could be worth something to them. Whether that will be enough for the service to gain enough attention from users remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t continue working on it if I didn’t believe in the idea.

Copenhagen Suborbitals: Changing The Space Access Game.

Getting off the rock which we’re gravitationally bound to is an expensive endeavor, so much so that doing it has well been out of the reach of anyone but the super-governments of the world for almost half a century. We’re in the middle of a space revolution with private companies popping up everywhere promising to reduce the cost of access to space with many of them delivering on their promises. Still even with so many revolutions happening in the private space industry the cost of doing so is still well out of the reach of the vast majority of people in the world, even though they’ve come down by an order of magnitude in the past decade.

Still there are people working on extremely novel solutions to this problem and they’re starting to show some very promising results. Late last year I wrote about Copenhagen Suborbitals a volunteer team that is working on a single person rocket using only donated funds. Back then they were gearing up to launch their first test rocket called HEAT from their sea launch platform that was propelled by a submarine that one of its creators built. Unfortunately they did not manage to launch as the cryogenic valve for the liquefied oxygen had frozen shut (thanks to the hair dryer they used as a heater draining the batteries on the sub) preventing the rocket from igniting. They were determined to launch it however and just recently they gave it another attempt.

The upgraded rocket, dubbed HEAT-1X, has a few improvements over its previous incarnation. The sea launch platform is now a fully enclosed unit, no longer requiring external propulsion from a submarine to get it into position. HEAT-1X now uses a polyurethane rubber mix instead of the previously used paraffin wax which was found to not vaporize completely which caused a reduction in the resulting amount of thrust. With these improvements in mind they attempted launching again back on the 3rd of June, and the results speak for themselves:

The launch, whilst undoubtedly a success for all involved, wasn’t without its share of problems. HEAT-1X did manage to achieve supersonic speed however it deviated from its direct vertical flight path considerably. Even though they were out in the ocean mission control decided to shut down the engine after 21 seconds of flight. The craft still managed to achieve a height of approximately 2.8KM in that time and covered over 8KM in ground distance. There was successful separation of the booster and craft stages however the parachute on the booster was torn free due to the high drag it experienced. The space craft’s parachutes didn’t unfurl properly either causing it to receive significant damage upon landing. Unfortunately the booster was lost to the Baltic Sea but the capsule was recovered successfully.

Despite those problems the HEAT-1X flight represents a tremendous step forward for the Copenhagen Suborbitals team and shows that they are quite capable of building a craft capable of delivering people into suborbital space. They’re still a long way from putting a person in one of their crafts (3~5 years is their estimate) but this launch validates much of the work they have done to this point. I really can’t wait to see them achieve their vision of getting someone into space on a shoestring budget and should they succeed they will make Denmark the fourth nation ever to launch a man into space (Russia, USA and China were ahead of them, if you were wondering). Considering that it will all be done with volunteer time and donations make the achievement even more incredible and I’m sure they’re inspiring many of their younger Danes to pursue a life in the sciences and engineering.

Hard to Argue With Numbers Like That (or the iPad Conundrum).

It’s no secret that I’m amongst the iPad’s most harsh critics. My initial reaction was one of frustration and disappointment with my following posts continuing the trend, launching volley after volley about how the iPad had failed to meet the goals that some of its largest supporters had laid out before it. After that I avoided commenting on it except for one point where I dispelled some of the rumours that the iPad was killing the netbook market, since there was more evidence that the netbook market was approaching saturation than the iPad was stealing sales. Still I hadn’t heard any reports of the product failing miserably so I had assumed it was going along well, I just didn’t know how well.

To be honest I was intrigued to see how the iPad did almost a year later as whilst the initial sales were pretty amazing I hadn’t really heard anything since then. Usually when a company is doing well they like to trumpet that success openly (hello Android) but Apple’s silence felt like it said a lot about how the iPad was performing. As it turns out it was doing really well, so well in fact that even the most wild predictions of its success were way off:

Apple sold almost 15 million iPads last year.  It is outselling Macs in units, and closing in on revenues.  The 7.3 million iPads sold just in the December quarter represented a 75 percent increase from the September quarter, and the $4.6 billion in revenue represented a 65 percent sequential jump. (The iPad launched in April).  By any measure, this is an incredible ramp for an entirely new computing product.  It is so startling that nobody predicted it—not bullish Wall Street analysts, or even wild-eyed bloggers.

A post on Asymco tallies all the early predictions of iPad unit sales from both Wall Street analysts and tech bloggers. The iPAd ended up selling 14.8 million units in 2010.  The highest Wall Street estimate from April was 7 million (Brian Marshall of Broadpoint AmTech).  David Bailey at Goldman Sachs predicted 6.2 million.  Even Apple table-pounder Gene Munster initially thought they would sell only 3.5 million iPads. The average prediction among the 14 analysts listed was 3.3 million.

Even I’d find it hard to keep a straight face and say that almost 15 million sold in under a year isn’t a sign of success. Since Jobs’ return to the Cupertino company they’ve made a name for themselves in bringing technology to the masses in a way that just seems to command people to buy them and the iPad is just another example of how good they are at doing this. The iPad coincidentally fuelled demand for other Apple products leading to Apple having the best financial quarter ever. Even the industry analysts had a hard time predicting that one. There’s then no denying that the iPad is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Whilst much of the groundwork was laid by the several generations of iPhones before it the iPad is quite a viable platform for developers to work on and companies to promote their brand with.

However I still can’t help but feel that some of the hype surrounding it was a little bit too far reaching. Initially many people saw something like the iPad as the death knell for traditional print media, killing all those who dared defy the trend and publish themselves through the digital medium. In the beginning there were signs of a media revolution in the works with many big media companies signing on to create iPad versions of their more traditional media. The results were good too with many of the digital magazines and newspapers selling hundreds of thousands of copies in their first runs. However the shine soon faded failing to capture a new digital market and not even managing to cannibalise sales from their traditional outlets. The media revolution that so many expected the iPad to herald in has unfortunately fallen by the way side and I take a rather sadistic pleasure in saying “I told you so”.

By all other accounts though the iPad counts as a resounding success. Whilst I hate the fact that Apple managed to popularise the tablet format I can’t honestly say they haven’t created a market that barely existed before their product arrived. As always the hype may have run away from them a little bit in terms of what people thought the device symbolises but, let’s be honest here, that should be expected of any new device that Apple releases. I’m still waiting to see if any of the tablets will take my fancy enough to override the fiscal conservative in me but it would seem that Apple has managed to do that enough people to make the iPad the most successful tablet ever released, and that’s something.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Creates Orbital Dragon and History Once Again.

6 months ago I wrote about SpaceX’s historic flight of their Falcon 9 rocket and how much it meant to us space romantics. Their tentative schedule had me all aflutter with the possibility of seeing not one, but two more flights of their flagship rocket within this year. It was looking entirely possible too as just on a month later they were already building the next rocket and there was even a hint that I might get to see it take off on my trip through America. Whilst I may not have gotten to see the launch for myself SpaceX is not one to disappoint with them launching their second Falcon 9 rocket earlier this morning carrying a fully fledged version of their crew and cargo capsule, the Dragon.

The launch itself didn’t go by without a hitch though with some bad telemetry data causing the initial launch to be scrubbed and rescheduled for about an hour later. However once they were past that minor hurdle they were able to continue with launch preparations and launch without incident. This is testament to their ability to rapidly troubleshoot and resolve problems that would likely cost anyone else at least a day to recover from. Elon Musk is definitely onto something when he thought about running a launcher company as a startup, rather than a traditional organisation.

The mission profile was a relatively simple one although it represents a giant leap forward in capability for SpaceX. The previous launch of the Falcon 9 carried with it a Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, basically just a shell of a full Dragon capsule designed to be little more than a weight on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. That capsule lacked the ability to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 it was attached to and was also designed to burn up on re-entry. The payload for this mission however was a fully functional Dragon capsule with the full suite of avionics, support systems and the ability to return to earth from orbit. It was also carrying a small fleet of government owned CubeSats that were launched shortly after they achieved orbit. Approximately 3 hours after the Falcon 9’s launch the Dragon capsule returned safely to earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

I, along with every other space nut out there, are incredibly excited about what this means for the future of space. Not only has SpaceX managed to successfully launch a brand new rocket twice in 6 months they’ve done so with an almost flawless record. The pace at which they’re progressing is really quite astonishing considering how small they are compared to those who’ve achieved the same goals previously. The team that Elon Musk has assembled really deserves all the credit that they get and I now I wait with baited breath at their next launch as that will be the first private spacecraft ever to visit the International Space Station.

It’s really quite exciting to see progress like this in an area that was once considered only accessible by the world’s superpower governments. Whilst we’re still a long, long way from such technology becoming an everyday part of our lives like commercial air travel has the progress that SpaceX has made shows that the current cost to orbit can and will come down over time. This also gives NASA the opportunity to stop focusing on the more rudimentary aspects of flight that SpaceX is now capable of handling, leaving them to return to what they were once known best for: pushing the envelope of what the human race is capable of in space. So whilst we won’t be seeing another Falcon 9 launch this year as I had hoped all those months ago this perfect flight of the first fully functional Dragon capsule signals that the future of space travel for us humans is not just bright, it’s positively blinding.

Falcon 9 Soars Into The History Books.

There are times when I stare at this page for hours trying to think up something to write, hoping that a spark of inspiration hits me at just the right time and with enough force for me to spill out a few hundreds words. There are other times when I have no such trouble and today is one of those days. Just a couple days ago one of my favourite space companies, SpaceX, launched their Falcon 9 rocket into space carrying a prototype of their Dragon capsule which will one day bring astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Before I say anything about it though I think you need to see the launch for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sP5gykvTBpM

The whole video is awe inspiring in the simplicity of the image that hides the thousands of man hours required to make such an event happen. I watched the entirity of it with bated breath as even though the most difficult part is liftoff there are still so many things that can go wrong. You can then imagine my elation when the Dragon capsule reached orbit and the engines shutdown, making this launch nothing short of completely flawless.

As you would expect the space community is completely engulfed in the enormity of this achievement, and rightly so. SpaceX has proven that they’re quite capable of doing what is usually reserved for large governments and budgets in the billions on what amounts to a shoestring budget. Additionally they’ve shown that they’re quite capable of learning from their mistakes as this flawless launch avoided all the problems that they’d previously encountered. The incredible pace of development that they’ve managed to keep up over the past couple years shows just how talented the entire SpaceX team is and how much they mean to the future of space for all of humanity.

The launch itself isn’t the only thing making headlines either. You see around the same time as the launch some of my fellow Australians noticed a strange spiral lightshow up in the sky. Whilst many where quick to jump on the alien UFO bandwagon the space community cast our minds back 6 months to when a similar event happened over Norway. As it turns out they are obstensibly the same thing as our lightshow was caused by the Falcon 9 first stage booster spiraling back down to earth, venting its remaining fuel as it did. This was probably the only unexpected part of the Falcon 9 launch as SpaceX didn’t expect it to create such a show on its way back down and future launches of the Falcon 9 will not do this again.

So what does this launch actually mean for the future of space? Well the success of this intial flight means that all their processes and systems have been verified as fully capable of launching an orbital craft. Whilst the Dragon capsule is in orbit (I think it has returned already as the mission profile was 5 hours, but can’t find any confirmation of that) it will provide quite a lot of useful data on the real world flight characteristics of the craft. Additionally upon return it will verify their landing capabilities, ensuring that once this thing is used for people it won’t turn them into soylent jam. Most importantly it means that the next 2 scheduled flights can focus on their core objectives, rather than verification of core systems had this initial flight failed.

SpaceX currently has 2 more flights of the Falcon 9 planned for 2010 and if you look at their objectives you can see why I and every other space nut in the world is going ballistic:

DemoTarget DateDurationObjectives
120105 hoursLaunch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft
220105 daysISS Fly-by. Dragon will approach to within 10 km of ISS and exercise the radio cross-link, demonstrating the ability of ISS crew to receive telemetry from Dragon and their ability to send a command to the spacecraft. After this primary objective is completed, Dragon will leave the vicinity of ISS and perform a comprehensive set of in-space check-outs before returning to earth.
320103 daysFull cargo mission profile including mate to ISS

Do you see it? This year could see the first fully private space vehicle actually docking with the ISS and delivering cargo to it! Whilst I understand that these times are tentative you can still see just how mind blowing this is, as we’re mere baby steps away from replacing the retiring space shuttle’s cargo delivery service and arm’s reach from delivering the people it used to carry.

So my congratulations goes out to SpaceX and all the supporting people for their success with launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule into orbit. Your hard work and dedication is paving the way not only for a new era of private space travel but also for NASA to return to its true goal of pushing the boundaries of what the human race is capable of. I look forward to watching your accomplishments roll on steadily and, one day, to be just another happy customer of the services that you provide.

See you SpaceX cowboy.

Success? Ares I-X Test Flight.

Last week the worldwide space community turned their collective eyes back towards the Cape Canaveral to bear witness to NASA’s first new launch system in over 25 years. I lamented recently that the whole thing was mostly pointless and was mostly a PR stunt done for the purpose of “showing progress” to congress and upper NASA management but that didn’t detract from the test appearing to be a blazing success (go here for a great video, no embedding this time around folks). It didn’t explode in an expensive fireball, veer off course or fail completely unlike many first runs of most launch systems. By all accounts they did well.

The launch wasn’t without its issue though, the main one being some damage to the stage booster which was discovered when the divers when to recover it. Just like the space shuttle the first stage booster on the Ares I is reusable and detaches itself from the craft long before they reach orbital speed. They then deploy a set of parachutes and land somewhere in the Atlantic for recovery by one of NASA’s naval vessels.  It appears that a couple of these failed after they deployed causing the booster to descend much quicker than it should causing the dent on splash down. It’s nothing major really and it’s something a test like this is designed to sort out.

If you watched the video you’d notice that towards the end when the stages were separating that the upper stage didn’t continue on the trajectory that you’d expect, it sort of fell by the wayside. When I first saw it I thought that it was unusual but wrote it off mostly due to the sub-orbital trajectory. In truth its really due to the fact that the payload is a dummy and doesn’t have an engine of its own. You see the Ares I-X could never deliver a payload into orbit as the second stage needs to boost itself. This is why it appears to tumble away from the lower stage, it has no power of its own.

Another issue they encountered was thrust oscillation, or more commonly referred to POGO. In fact it was experienced by the majority of the Apollo astronauts as the Saturn V rocket design unfortunately lent itself to this occurring. It was initially fixed by turning off the center engine and later by a POGO dampener (flown first on Apollo 14) so it’s not like NASA hasn’t dealt with it before. To their credit though it was close to what the shuttle currently experiences, although it’s not a particularly notable feat since it’s basically a ramped up part of the shuttle.

There was also some damage to launch pad 39B due to the fact that the Ares I-X took off at an angle, to avoid part of it, which faced the exhaust at the launch structure. It appears that they knew about this well in advance so I have no idea why they didn’t modify the structure prior to launch. I’d probably point that to budgetary and time constraints, but it still seems silly to knowingly cause damage to your launch facilities.

Overall I’d have to give NASA credit for flying a mission that I had to really nit pick at. Apart from the points I groaned about in the past the actual test itself provided them with a lot of useful data and showed them the direction they needed to go in. I’d be even more happy with them if they’d flown a fully blown Ares I but I’ll take whatever I can get from NASA these days. 🙂