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Speed of SAP change in a vacuum

What is the relevance of increasing your pace of development? Why is it better than what we have been doing for the last few decades (or more)? With the assistance of a short diversion into science, I’ll tell you.

What is the relevance of increasing your pace of development? Why is it better than what we have been doing for the last few decades (or more)? With the assistance of a short diversion into science, I’ll tell you.

I was at a show a few weeks ago; an evening of physics-based nerdiness. I know, this doesn’t paint me in a good light but I’ll explain.

I was at the Hammersmith Apollo for Prof Brian Cox’s Christmas Compendium of Reason, a fantastic annual event where a few thousand rational human beings sit in this famous auditorium for 4 hours of experiments, bangs, wonderment, special guests and not a few laughs. A strange intersection of science, comedy and, this year, a mini New Order gig.

No, I won’t give you the Venn diagram, suffice to say Blue Monday was in a circle all on its own, nowhere near the show – boo.

Among the general geekery was a 15 minute ‘show-and-tell’ by a New Horizons scientist (the New Horizons mission was sent by NASA to provide images of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt Objects beyond it).

His stories and descriptions of what it took to send something all the way to Pluto gave me a fantastic retrospective on how far and how fast we’ve come in just a few years.

New Horizons left Earth on January 19th 2006. Before it left, the best view we had of Pluto was this, from Hubble:

pluto

Still pretty impressive considering it had only been discovered in 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh compared thousands of photographic plates and identified a smudgy blob which moved from one to the next.

And now, only 10 years later after launch, New Horizons screamed past Pluto at 14.5km/s and delivered this:

What amazed me just as much as the ability of engineers to get the probe there, in working condition and performing exactly to specification, was the speed at which this and other exploratory missions are happening. Hardly a week goes past without another discovery, milestone or mission extension.

There are comparisons with the waterfall/agile approach of the 60s when USA and USSR kept sending incremental updates into space. There is a reason why it was the 11th Apollo which got to the Moon.

The recent steps towards greater reliance on simulation, modeling and testing mean that when they do take the risky step of actually lighting the touchpaper on those solid rocket boosters, it is done with the utmost confidence that everything will work as planned.

Missions are now being sent with such a degree of confidence that it is leading to a reduction in the cost per kg of sending something to either low earth orbit, geostationary orbit or to the moon and beyond. Elon Musk stated many years ago “I believe $1,100/kg or less is very achievable”. The cost currently is around the $20,000/kg so we are still a long way off, but it is coming down fast.

Being able to send more advanced, more reliable satellites can help us in many ways, such as being able to track weather patterns and improve crop production without over-reliance on irrigation or pesticides.

The launching of satellites has real-world applications and is driven by development approaches which are innovative.

Agile, pace of change, DevOps – these aren’t buzzwords for SpaceX and NASA, they are everyday working practices because these methodologies make their products (that is, their missions), faster, more reliable and cheaper. SpaceX CIO Ken Venner has discussed this very topic.

Time for an analogy.

You’ve seen pictures of the rovers on Mars, taking images of rocks and generally pootling around in the red sand. You think: “ahh, they’re nice little things.”

Little? No.

We’ve gone from throwing lumps of metal at planets to gracefully placing cars where we want them. Yes, cars.

This pace of change, this rapid development can only happen because NASA and other aerospace organizations which I always thought were traditional, have evolved from having the attitude of a slow governmental crawl to a silicon valley start-up. There is oversight, control and responsibility, but now there is also agility, innovation and pace.

Just type “NASA Continuous Delivery” into Google and see what turns up. Go on, I’ll wait here for a few minutes while you sit back with amazement at what you thought was a 60s dinosaur.

Back now? Good.

Apologies to those who already knew that aerospace firms were doing this, but to me it was a revelation.

It doesn’t matter if you are NASA or SpaceX, with a single product which is blasting up into orbit, or Amazon with a few thousand products being sent to us earth-bound consumers.

It’s common to both that increasing the pace of change means they’ll get there better, faster.

If NASA, SpaceX, ESA and the like hadn’t made these commitments then any number of recent technological accomplishments (probably including New Horizons) would not have arrived. Well, not for another 50 years or so. What is clear to me is that they’ve had to embrace agility and rapid development not just to perform adequately but to leave the solar system.

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