Welcome to the star-chip enterprise…
In what seemed at first like a slightly-delayed April 1st prank, the news recently was full of a story of a $100M research project into developing the first interstellar spacecraft. In the plural. Around a thousand of them. Each just a microchip weighing just a few grams.
At first glance, many would think it crazy but that’s largely because it seems counter-intuitive. We are somehow programed to think that the bigger the problem the bigger the solution has to be, and not without good reason.
Take space travel as the perfect example, there is the very simple matter of the laws of physics to have to deal with if it’s going to be possible at all. That’s simple as in “you have to deal with them no matter what,” not simple as in “easy to understand.”
To get into space at all requires an awful lot of fuel. To get further requires a really stupendous amount of fuel. At launch, Apollo 11 weighed 46,000kg of which only 10% (and some rocks) ever came back to Earth. So it logically follows that to really get out there among the stars we’d need something quite monstrous.
But the logic only holds if our assumptions remain constant. The biggest of which in this case is; to get to where you want to go you have to carry all your fuel (and indeed everything else you need) with you. This is the problem, the vast majority of what you need to launch is the fuel required to the lift the fuel you’ll need to lift the fuel…and so on.
Taking that seemingly fixed requirement out of the equation suddenly frees up the entire model for re-examination.
Of course, it doesn’t solve the problem. To get to the stars you need to go from relative rest to a significant velocity and again the laws of physics dictate that something has to push you along…and keep pushing you along for quite some time.
Yuri Milner’s proposed project, backed by no lesser names that Steven Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, suggests that a swarm of tiny, spacecraft-on-a-chip vehicles with lighter-than-air sails can be pushed along by the radiation pressure from an array of staggeringly bright ground-based lasers. The force that light can exert on the sails is tiny but constant and it is that continuous pressure that can ultimately accelerate the host of nano-craft to enormous speeds.
What this project proposes is to eliminate the biggest assumption that utterly dictates how things must be done, and in doing so enable a uniquely fresh approach to solving the problem – one that might just work, and work surprisingly well.
In our world of earth-bound procurement technology there remain some assumptions that are still held as articles of faith by some. The centrality of ERP, the need to be able to physically locate data, the “ownership” of the software itself and others are all essentially dogmatic in nature.
Compared to the space exploration industry, procurement is actually ahead of the curve in coming up with new ways of doing things. For two reasons. Firstly, despite what those doctrinal prejudices suggest, procurement is not bound by any insurmountable physical laws, and secondly, a lot of the creative innovation is already well underway.
Nevertheless, despite the transformation that is going on in procurement there is still a long way to go, and not everyone is on board.
Recently I heard an anecdote that one company is planning the migration of its current systems from behind-the-firewall into the cloud and their project plan extends for five years. That’s five years to end up with today’s systems located elsewhere. Surely, there has to be a better way.
An implementation of our state-of-the-art procurement platform – all of it – might take a tenth of that time, the rest of the five years could be occupied with driving ROI and taking advantage of all the new innovations that come along in the meantime.
If we remain tied to old-school thinking by the time we’ve built a rocket big enough to get a tiny amount of equipment to today’s goal, we may find that others beat us to it, planted their flag and are now heading to the stars.