Collective Consciousness // A guided tour inside the minds of the PROTO team
BRANDON KILBURY: Restricted only by the bounds of space-time itself and driven by propulsion, living a dual life as a PROTO team rider and a SpaceX engineer
Ever look closely at the night sky? If you live in Southern California like me, you probably can’t see jack shit because of the light pollution, But if you’ve ever been far enough from civilization to actually see the stars, it’s quite striking. There are about 10,000 stars visible in the night sky (in stark contrast with the 200 or so on the Alex Steadman Signature Cosmos shirt..). That may sound like a lot, but consider that our galaxy (The Milky Way) is home to roughly 100 BILLION stars, and there is estimated to be about 2 TRILLION galaxies in our observable universe. I’m not even going to bother typing out all those zeroes because you hopefully get my point: the universe is huge. Excluding a few brief visits to the moon in the 60’s/70’s, the entirety of human history has occurred on just 1 planet. With so much universe out there to explore, don’t we owe it to ourselves to get the hell off this rock?
The primary technology that first made space travel possible was the rocket. What’s nice about rockets is that they are capable of insane speeds unlike propellers, car engines, and jet engines. Unfortunately, all three require the oxygen in our atmosphere to function and basically stop working above a certain speed. Rockets are pretty simple in theory: burn fuel and let it fly out one side of the projectile. They had a long history of use in battle but it wasn’t until 1898 that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed we use them to travel to space. Then, in the late 1950’s, the Soviet Union finally sent a satellite into orbit, which started the space race of the 1960’s. During that time, U.S. interest in space travel reached its peak and resulted in the iconic moon landings of the Apollo program. Unfortunately, once the Cold War ended, interest in space travel stagnated and rocket technology has remained largely unchanged since. In fact, until recently, some modern rocket companies were still using Russian engines made in the 60’s.
We’re just now starting to enter what some consider a new age of space travel with private companies developing new rocket and space technology. I’m proud to say I’m an employee at one such company, SpaceX (for more background on my role read to the bottom). Thanks to the insane vision of our CEO, Elon Musk, we’ve achieved a lot of “world firsts” in the space industry. First private company to send something to orbit, first private company to send a vehicle to the space station, we have the highest thrust to weight rocket engine ever made (Merlin 1D), and probably the most important: the first return and landing of an orbital rocket’s first stage. Historically, rockets costing millions of dollars simply burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the ocean after delivering their payload to orbit. This return and landing will allow us to re-use the most expensive part of our rockets and therefore cut the cost of space travel dramatically. This family of reusable rockets is called Falcon 9 and we plan on adapting this technology to a massive new rocket to send people to Mars and beyond. The ultimate goal of the company is to create colonies of people on other planets in case an asteroid or nuclear war wipes out life on Earth, but beyond that, how sick would it be to travel around to other planets like in the movies??
It’s taken billions of dollars and several decades to get to where we are, but we still have so much more work ahead of us. Huge liquid fueled rockets are great for getting us into earth orbit and to the very closest planets but in order to travel to other stars we’ll need to do a whole lot better. To give you an idea let’s talk about the Voyager 1 probe which was launched in 1977. The probe has been traveling at 40,000 mph since flying by Jupiter and Saturn 36 years ago, and finally just exited our solar system in 2012. At this rate, it would take 70,000 years to reach our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. While impressive, it’s clear that 20th-century technology isn’t going to get us all that far. Electric propulsion has been a step in the right direction, used on many satellites it is much lighter and more efficient for small crafts but we’ll still need to get even more creative.
In recent years, lots of research has been done on new forms of space propulsion utilizing nuclear fusion, antimatter, and light from the sun. This video gives a pretty simple rundown of semi-realistic methods such as solar sails and nuclear energy, as well as some of the crazier ideas such as antimatter and black-hole drives. Since the laws of physics say nothing can travel faster than light (about 186,000 miles per second) even the fastest of these options take years to reach other stars, let alone other galaxies. The idea of an unimaginably vast universe without enough time in a human lifetime to reach anything was a depressing realization for me. But get this: according to Einstein’s theories about space, time, and gravity called General Relativity, time moves slower the faster you’re moving. What this means is that if you get a ship close enough to the speed of light, you can travel virtually anywhere in the universe and it would feel like a short trip because your clock is ticking so slowly. There is a catch though.. During your “short” trip, thousands of years will have passed on earth. So no one back home will ever know if you made it where you were going.
As you can see there are a few details to flesh out, but I’m hopeful that humans will someday be able to get off this rock and travel across the universe before an asteroid or climate change wipes us out. Maybe the next Proto Space Deck will have the technology we need!
Just to give more of my own background and involvement at SpaceX, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2013 and currently work as a mechanical design engineer. Growing up I never quite expected to be working in aerospace, but knew my skills in math and science aligned well with engineering. In school I would spend many late nights reading Wikipedia articles about black holes, physics, space travel and the universe and have always been really fascinated by everything that exists out there in the deep reaches of space so it’s only appropriate I ended up working where I do. I work in the tool engineering department at SpaceX. Tool in this context means anything from a specialized power tool to install bolts, large steel carts that rotate and manipulate sections of the rockets, special trailers that ship the rockets across the country, fixtures that use motors and actuators to install pieces of the vehicles, and everything in between. Imagine if every part of a scooter was the size of a car and how difficult it would be to build one without highly specialized tools. That’s where my team comes in. We are expected to design entire systems of complex tools on our own, from making sure every single bolt is strong enough to ensure the way we are interacting with the rocket won’t harm it. This often includes stress analysis for entire sections of the vehicles since even resting it on its side on a cart can stress the structure in ways it wasn’t designed for. It can be intimidating at times, especially when we are expected to create innovative solutions under time and budget constraints that need to work on the first try with millions of dollars on the line. On the other hand though, the culture there very much values measurable results. This means very few barriers to success, so no office politics, no real dress code, unlimited free coffee, a very approachable upper management, and open and helpful team atmosphere. This approach resonates with me as I feel strongly it shouldn’t matter what your individual working style is as long as you’re doing what’s right and progressing something forward. I feel undeserving and underqualified at times being surrounded by so many ultra-driven, brilliant people but I can say without a doubt it’s pushed me well beyond what I thought I was capable of. It’s pretty common for people to pack up and leave SpaceX after about 5 years and move on to a slower paced and higher paying job somewhere else. For me, I hope to stick it out past that milestone and continue taking in as much knowledge as I can.