Chemical Rockets to Open Source

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It isn't often I come face to face with myself after a twenty-something year break, but I did yesterday.

Back as a young first year university student at the South Australian Institute of Technology, I wandered into an Adelaide company called Australian Launch Vehicles (ALV), a company I noticed when driving around doing landscape gardening oddjobs. “Launch Vehicles” sounded very cool, so in I went. ALV was founded by a pair of entrepreneurial rocket scientists unhappy with the lack of progress in launching cheap low earth orbit satellites, despite decades of rocketry history in South Australia. Establishing a new Australian spaceflight capability in 1987 was ambitious, but ALV had credibility and the backing of some large engineering companies.

The founders kindly spent time talking to me, and explained that one of their biggest problems was that ground control software would be hideously expensive. Software? Now I was hooked. That comment had unintended consequences.

Thanks to my parents' foresight and provision I had already been using FidoNet modem-based bulletin board (BBS) networks through my school years. FidoNet was freely-distributed software ( ) and I had always been fascinated that you could actually talk to the developers. Later, on enrolling at the South Australian Institute of Technology I discovered Usenet, the pre-Internet forum technology ( ), which was larger than the Internet at the time. I found it amazing, all those people doing what we would call Internet-type things. A high proportion of Usenet users were technical, and many were involved in writing the very software we all used to communicate. I kept noticing the contrast between the software development model used there and what I had worked with in IBM PC commercial accounting software in my previous (and only!) job. The PCs, of course, were not networked in any way, but they were all about individuals hacking away in isolation. Software written by others came on floppy disks in the commercial world, but here already in 1988 was downloadable source code, patches and fixes being emailed, and new versions on a daily basis, just like cloud computing.

I was so enthused by what collaborative software development could do for spaceflight that I posted this Usenet message worldwide: and emailed the same message to the electronic postmasters of every organisation I could find - basically an early piece of spam, although only a couple of people were upset by it. It is a strange feeling re-reading my words as a twenty year-old! I was deluged with hundreds of responses, many from seasoned computing and/or aerospace professionals with computing backgrounds, which to me was surprising and somewhat overwhelming. Best of all, due to all this activity, the Institute Computer Centre gave me disk quota and Internet access on my account on the VMS computer cluster. It wasn't their job to support random independent non-coursework projects, but I am forever indebted to VMS supremo Rollo Ross for letting me loose.

After some work and discussion with developers all around the world I decided it might be possible to write and test rocket launch control software. Somehow or other I got the director of Research for the Institute and the head of Computer Centre to come with me to talk to the rocket scientists. One of them in particular, Peter Winch, was very kind in the way he didn't say "you are utterly unhinged". Instead he said "Thanks anyway, and maybe there is another angle you can tackle instead." So then I went around the Institute (being completely unused to how academics work, and the way they say things) and put together an alternative project. Then I posted this followup, this time with my rare privilege of being able to write to the Usenet forum . My project never had a chance for many reasons starting with ignorance – and I didn't understand what the academics meant when they said they would help run the project! But the main act was Australian Launch Vehicles and after a period of trying gloriously, the engineering giants backing them failed to get the launch contract for the Iridium satellite cluster, and so ALV folded.

The Australian Federal government had been conspicuous by their absence in the whole affair despite fine words, and it seemed at the time the whole idea of a local space industry was seen as a problem. That too was a lesson, "how can people not see it is important?" comes up in any large project with lots of stakeholders. If the message isn't transmitted, if the enthusiasm isn't shared, then the project hasn't got a chance... and the time has to be right. Unfortunately the time just wasn't right.

The whole experience started me off on something new. In 1988 I felt the power of a technical discussion where, as a young and inexperienced person, highly competent people treated me as an equal, over a global network. I discovered and wrote tools that let me analyse what people were saying across thousands of interest groups and discover who was likely to have similar interests to me. And I learned that global development of source-available softwar e had been going on for decades and was a really good idea. I was particularly interested to see what could be done with collections of this free software, and what it was like to work on internet mailing lists writing it. So I set myself to learn everything I could. Eventually, years later, this kind of software became respectable, and got a name. Open Source Software.

And ALV? All the people have moved on of course I did wonder, which is why I recently rang up a power station manager in the state of Queensland, Australia, and said "So, remember when you were a rocket scientist in Adelaide..." and we had a great old chat :-)

Life is a funny thing.

PS VMS … is an old but wonderful operating system. There are free licenses available from and a free simulator of giant computers from . As some of the old-timers say, “Never Trust a Computer You Can Lift” !

Space in Australia in 2018

... and hot off the presses there has been a lot of progress in Australian low earth orbit boosters. Gilmour Space have developed a hybrid engine, where "hybrid" means it is both a liquid and a solid fuel motor. Others have produced workable prototypes (including big names such as Virgin Galactic) but it seems this Singapore/Australian company Gilmour Space Launch Services have got a very efficient 3D printed fuel solution. 3D fuel printing means that both the individual fuel pellets and the rocket motor itself are 3D printed out of rocket propellant... building a motor out of its own fuel is a old idea but this is a new level of performance: . I'm hoping it works!

I also notice that Gilmour have signed a US Space Act Agreement with NASA. One of the prominent features of Space Act Agreements is that they strictly control interaction with people from China, because the US Congress banned such cooperation in 2015. NASA has to certify yearly that it will not "participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company" ( .) This isn't slowing the world down much since Europe, China and Russia are cooperating on many space projects. Let's hope it doesn't slow Gilmour.

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