Tag Archives: Elon Musk

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Going beyond ‘fake news = wrong facts’

Just as there’s no merit in writing a piece that is confused and incomplete, there’s no merit in digging through a dumpster and complaining that there’s trash. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when The Quint publishes something as ass-backwards as this article, titled ‘SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?’, in a time when finally, at long fucking last, people are beginning to wake up to the idea that ISRO’s and SpaceX’s responsibilities are just different.

In fact, the author of this article seems (temporarily) aware of this distinction, writing, “You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals”, even as he makes the comparison anyway. This is immature, irresponsible journalism (if that), worse than the Sisyphean he-said-she-said variety if only because the ‘he’ in this case is the author himself.

But more importantly, against the backdrop of the I&B ministry’s guidelines on combating fake news that were released, and then retracted, earlier today, I briefly wondered whether this Quint piece could be considered fake news. A friend quickly disabused me of the idea by pointing out that this isn’t exactly news, doesn’t contain factual mistakes and doesn’t seem to have malicious intent – all valid points. However, I’m still not sure I agree… My reasons:

1. News is information that is new, contemporary and in the public interest. While the last two parameters can be defined somewhat objectively, novelty can and is frequently subjective. Often, it also extends to certain demographic groups within a population, such as readers of the 18-24 age group, for whom a bit of information that’s old for others is new.

2. The article doesn’t contain factual mistakes but the relationships the author defines between various facts are wrong and untrue. There are also assumptions made in the article (dissected below) that make the author sound stupid more than anything else. One does have the freedom of expression but journalists and publishers also have a responsibility to be… well, responsible.

3. You can make rational decisions only when you know everything there is to know apropos said decisions. So when you deliberately ignore certain details that would render an argument meaningless just so you can make the argument yourself, that’s malice. Especially when you then click the ‘publish’ button and watch as a clump of irrational clutch of sememes reaches 19,000 people in 18 hours.

So to me, this article is fake news.

Here’s another locus: according to Dictionary.com, fake news is

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

The Quint article is sensational. It claims ISRO and SpaceX can’t be compared but goes on to make the comparison anyway. Why? Traffic, visibility and revenue (through ads on The Quint‘s pages). It’s textual faff that wastes the reader’s time, forces others to spend time correcting the irrational beliefs that will take root in people’s minds as a result of reading the article, and it’s just asinine of The Quint to lend itself as a platform for such endeavours. It’s the sort of thing we frequently blame the male protagonists in Indian films for: spending 150 minutes realising his mistakes.

But again, I do apologise for whining that there’s trash in the dumpster. (Aside: A recent headline in Esquire had just the term for journalism-done-bad – ‘trash avalanche’.)


I must dissect the article. It’s an addiction!

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

Extra bucks, eh?

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

You don’t say…

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

Wrong + 🚩

Okay, first some facts.

That’s kind of you.

ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

You should check out some of the stuff NASA, JAXA and ESA have done. ISRO really hasn’t done it all – and neither have NASA, JAXA and ESA.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Not easy to have goals? Have you seen the todo lists of most people?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

That’s a comparison 🚩

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!
Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

Do you know that if I launch one rocket successfully, I’ll have a success rate of 100%?

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

That’s Rs 1.3 lakh crore, not Rs 13.035 crore.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

You’re comparing the mission costs of one rocket that can carry 10,000+ kg to the LEO to a rocket that can carry 3,800 kg to the LEO. Obviously the former is going to be costlier!

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Dear author: please mention that this fact renders the comparison in your previous line meaningless. At least refrain from using terms like “big difference”.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

First: Antrix, not ISRO, charges $3 million per satellite. Second: By not discussing payload mass and orbital injection specifications, the author’s withholding information that will make this “peanuts” juxtaposition illogical. Third: ISRO and SpaceX operate out of different economies – a point that incumbent ISRO chairman K. Sivan has emphasised – leading to different costing (e.g. have you considered labour cost?). Finally, source of data?

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

That last bit – does the Department of Space know you’re feeling this way? Because if they did, they might not go ahead with building the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). So that’s another 🚩

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches,

Although this claim is bandied about in the press, I doubt it’s true given the differences in payload capacities, costs to space and launch frequencies of the PSLV/GSLV and the Falcon 9.

he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Is this a big deal? Or are you awed that India’s efforts are being lauded by a white man of the west?

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

It’s not “impressive enough”. It’s not ironic.

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

But if Musk hadn’t been impressed, then ISRO would’ve continued to be a failure in your eyes, of course.

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

ISRO and SpaceX must both be so relieved.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

How exactly? 🤔 Also, if we shouldn’t be comparing ISRO and SpaceX, how’re they in the same race?

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

SpaceX rocket blows up but let's remember that #SpaceIsHard

The Wire
June 30, 2015

“… it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work.” Elon Musk said this in a now-famous interview to Wired in 2008 when questioned about what the future of private spaceflight looked like after SpaceX had failed three times in a row trying to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. At the close, Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, asserted, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Fast forward to June 28, 2015, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1950 IST. There’s a nebulaic cloud of white-grey smoke hanging in the sky, the signature of a Falcon 9 rocket that disintegrated minutes after takeoff. @SpaceX’s Twitter feed is MIA while other handles are bustling with activity. News trickles in that an “overpressurization” event occurred in the rocket’s second stage, a liquid-oxygen fueled motor. A tang of resolve hangs in conversations about the mishap – a steely reminder that #SpaceIsHard.

In October 2014, an Antares rocket exploded moments after lifting off, crashing down to leave the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, unusable for months. In April 2015, a Progress 59 cargo module launched by the Russian space agency’s Soyuz 2-1A rocket spun wildly out of control and fell back toward Earth – rather was incinerated in the atmosphere.

All three missions – Orbital’s, Roscosmos’s and SpaceX’s – were resupply missions to the International Space Station. All three missions together destroyed food and clothing for the ISS crew, propellants, 30 small satellites, spare parts for maintenance and repairs, a water filtration system and a docking port – at least. The result is that NASA’s six-month buffer of surplus resources on the ISS has now been cut back to four. The next resupply mission is Roscosmos’s next after its April accident, on July 3, followed by a Japanese mission in August.

But nobody is going to blame any of these agencies overmuch – rather, they shouldn’t. Although hundreds of rockets are successfully launched every year, what’s invisible on TV is the miracle of millions of engineering-hours and tens of thousands of components coming together in each seamless launch. And like Musk said back in 2008, it’s not all-or-nothing each time people try to launch a rocket. Accidents will happen because of the tremendous complexity.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch was the third attempt in six months to reuse the rocket’s first-stage. It’s an ingenious idea: to have the first-stage robotically manoeuvre itself onto a barge, floated off Wallops Island, after performing its duties. Had the attempt succeeded, SpaceX would’ve created history. Being able to reuse such an important part of the rocket reduces launch costs – possible by a factor of hundred, Musk has claimed.

Broad outlay of how SpaceX's attempt to recover Falcon's first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX

Broad outlay of how SpaceX’s attempt to recover Falcon’s first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX

In September 2013, the first stage changed direction, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and made a controlled descent – but landed too hard in the water. A second attempt in April 2014 played out a similar narrative, with the stage getting broken up in hard seas. Then, in January 2015, an attempt to land the stage on the barge – called the autonomous spaceport drone ship – was partially successful. The stage guided itself toward the barge in an upright position but eventually came down too hard. Finally, on June 28, a yet-unknown glitch blew up the whole rocket 2.5 minutes after launch.

The Falcon 9’s ultimate goal is to ferry astronauts into space. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA had no vehicles to send American astronauts into space from American soil, and currently coughs up $70 million to Roscosmos for each seat. As remedy, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated rockets fulfilling the associated and stringent criteria in September 2014. The vehicles have until 2017 to be ready. So in a way, it’s good that these accidents are happening now while the missions are uncrewed (and the ISS is under no real threat of running out of supplies).

June 28 was also Musk’s 44th birthday. On behalf of humankind, and in thanks to his ambitions and perseverance, someone buy the man a drink.

Desperate Toyota does a Tesla

Let go to take control.

That’s what Elon Musk did with the patents on his Tesla brand of electric cars. That’s what Toyota has done now with its patents on fuel-cells, releasing 5,680 licenses for royalty-free use at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. It said in a statement, “Toyota aims to go one step further as it aims to promote the widespread use of [fuel cell vehicles] and actively contribute to the realization of hydrogen-based society”, whose initial market introduction period it expects will last until 2020.

The release comes at the start of a year when the carmaker’s Mirai sedan is set to hit American and European markets. Mirai is Toyota’s first mass-market FCV. Fuel-cells power electric motors in cars by drawing on the energy released during a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, whose only other by-product is harmless steam. The Mirai can travel 650 km without refueling. Despite the glaring environmental benefits of using such a device, the FCV economy’s biggest stumbling block is the safe transportation of hydrogen from production units to supply stations. The gas has very low density, which means sufficient quantities can be stored only in pressurized containers, and reacts explosively with air.

Accordingly, of the 5,680 licenses released, 1,970 have to do with fuel-cell stacks, 3,350, with fuel-cell ‘system control technology’, 290 with high-pressure hydrogen tanks and 70 with hydrogen production and supply.

While electric vehicles like those manufactured by Musk’s Tesla Motors have already hit the road in many countries with reliable infrastructural support, FCVs are far behind. To date, the only other commercial FCV (apart from the Mirai) is Hyundai’s Tuscon/ix35, while Honda, Audi, Mercedes and Nissan have piloted concept vehicles. The biggest deterrent to wider uptake has been the cost: $700-1,100/kW in October 2014, second only to photovoltaics and wind turbines. A US National Renewable Energy Laboratory report in 2007 discussed why it was high:

the infrastructure needed to enable the widespread use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel is not available, resources are located outside demand areas, and the methods of producing hydrogen from renewable resources face many technical and economic hurdles. All these barriers must be overcome if hydrogen is to fuel a sustainable transportation economy.

On the bright side, the cost in 2002 was $5,500/kW. Moreover, Europe – one of the two big markets for FCVs – has decided to spend $1.58 billion (current prices) under its Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking program in the period 2014-2024.

As a result, Toyota’s decision is different from Tesla’s in terms of what it hopes to achieve: Tesla wanted its competition to organize itself so Tesla could challenge them on familiar terms. Toyota wants its competition to realize itself and so help spur the hydrogen economy – a far more ambitious goal. If not, market introduction of FCVs will extend way beyond 2020, when the royalty-free-use licenses expire.

Elon Musk’s altruism powertrain is just good business

In 1907, the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla sold all his patents to Westinghouse, Inc., for a heavily discounted $216,000, including one for alternating current. In 1943, he died penniless. In 2014, another Tesla has given away its patents but signs are that this one will be way more successful. Through a blog post on June 12, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, announced that his company would be releasing all the patents it held on the brand of successful electric vehicles (EVs) it manufactures. A line in the post indicates he wants to avoid future patent-infringement lawsuits, but this belies what Musk is set to reap from this ‘altruistic’ gesture.

Patents cut both ways. They safeguard information and prevent others from utilising it without paying its originators a license fee. On the other hand, patents also explicitly earmark some information as being useful and worth safeguarding over the rest. Even after open-sourcing patents on the Tesla EVs, Musk is still the proprietor of a lot of technical and managerial information – “the rest” – that his competitors are not going to master easily. By releasing his patents, Musk is not levelling the playing field as much as he’s releasing knowledge he thinks is crucial to develop zero-emission vehicles.

Shared knowledge

In fact, the battery-swapping station he showcased in 2013 was an idea borrowed from the Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who was Musk’s biggest competitor until his EVs company went bankrupt in 2012. Agassi had conceived battery-swapping a decade earlier to resolve the issue of range anxiety: the apprehension that gripped EV-drivers about how long the batteries in their cars were going to last. Unfortunately, the Israeli flunked while executing his plans. Musk not only installed the stations but also integrated it into his network of 480-volt Superchargers, of which he now has 90 in the USA, 16 in Europe and three in China.

Nevertheless, after Agassi’s departure, Tesla was king in a kingdom of frozen lakes. As Musk wrote in his post: “electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.” Without competition, Tesla both controls a market as well as leaves no room for errors for itself and witnesses no competing innovation to help support growing opportunities. While the charge capacity and efficiency of present lithium-ion batteries are nowhere close to being as high as the industry requires them to be, the Superchargers and the Panasonic cylindrical battery cells whose use Tesla pioneered are still unique and desirable. Now, Big Cars like GM and Ford could leverage the patents to crawl into the EVs market – and hopefully keep it from imploding.

Setting standards

Another way for Tesla to reap benefits from Big Cars is to latently guide them to model their products around the mould Musk has perfected in the last seven years. By releasing his patents, Musk has pushed a nascent industry toward one of its understated inflection points: standardization. Hardware standardization modularizes architecture, jumpstarts innovation, sets a benchmark for consumer expectations, and makes for easier adaptation of new technologies. For example, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research was established by the US government in 2013 with one goal to compile an ‘electrolyte genome’, a database of electrolytes aimed at EV manufacturers. Minimally changing hardware specifications makes JCESR’s work easier.

After all, the Tesla Model S costs $70,000-$80,000, and the Tesla Roadster, $110,000. As much as they have sold in the thousands, the only way they can sell in the millions is if they are as accessible as fossil-fuel-powered cars. Musk may be leading the way but he’s reliant on costly subsidies on battery packs, refuelling and maintenance. If he has to keep them up, he has to make the business of batteries and refuelling profitable. While his decision to release Tesla’s patents could help keep the EVs industry alive, its existence feeds his supercharger network and batteries’ use.