SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft inspires China

Control Engineering International: Successful launch of SpaceX Dragon spacecraft shocked and inspired China. Universal graphical system-level design platform software provided value for engineering development.

12/31/2012


The Dragon spacecraft’s successful launch shocked and inspired China. From a technical viewpoint, the value of the universal graphical system-level design platform is definitely well proven for engineering development.

At the 2012 China NIDays, Dr. Chen Dapang, general manager of NI China, showed his engineer-style sense of humor, which distinguished him among the executives of foreign companies (and worried his marketing team as they were afraid that the media could misread him). However, Dr. Chen knew what the industrial professional media were really interested in and believed that sincere discussion can make a good impression.

In morning and lunchtime presentations, NI mentioned the successful launch of Dragon by the private U.S. company SpaceX and the subsequent docking with the International Space Station. Chen Dapang praised the founder of SpaceX, explaining that all system design and verification at SpaceX are based on the NI graphical system design platform, NI LabVIEW. Dr. Chen is proud that NI provided services for those ambitious, interesting engineers who managed this successful project.

There have been many reports about the successful launch of Dragon in China. SpaceX founder Elon Musk (born in 1971) is a real-world “Iron Man.” He earned his first barrel of gold by selling payment software PayPal to eBay. Then he started his adventure in energy and aerospace with successful enterprises in both areas. He founded SpaceX in 2002, and it grew to 160 employees in 2005. Now, it has about 1,000 employees. As a private company, it has launched Dragon successfully, and key indicators, such as the rocket’s carrying capacity and low cost, have exceeded China’s efforts. Many SpaceX executives came from NASA. Even so, it is still amazing that the cost of development, starting from a blank sheet to successful launch and docking, is no more than $800 million. SpaceX has a more ambitious plan of a manned lunar landing within 10 years and a manned Mars landing within 15-20 years, Musk told Wall Street. The company also expects to try to reuse launch vehicles and use a new fuel.

In the area of electric vehicles, the Roadster from Tesla Motors, a company founded by Musk, can run as long as 393 kilometers on each charge, with acceleration performance exceeding that of a Porsche 911. Performance of traditional automobile manufacturers’ electric vehicles is far behind it. Musk, who holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, dropped out only two days after he started pursuing his master’s degree. He never experienced difficulties or an impasse, and has managed to thrive in the industry.

Musk’s achievements don’t guarantee future success, but his future seems optimistic. This genius owes his success to ambition and enthusiasm, along with recruiting a competent core development team to implement innovation. Nail-biting issues for NASA were solved by Musk’s team at a low cost. Gjit Gokhale, vice president of East Asia NI, was asked to summarize the core value that NI LabVIEW brought to SpaceX. He said using the universal graphical system-level design and verification platform to complete all systems design, from the simplest system to the most complicated, can naturally eliminate the time-consuming and required system integration and verification of multiple systems. All leaders of each subsystem are technical authorities from NASA, and their engineers and programmers don’t work on their own. All are programmers using the same NI Labview platform, which makes the system-level verification very efficient.

Similarly, China’s industry has caught up to the world by using the most advanced design tools and ideas. Examples were at the Zhuhai Airshow this year. As to the success of the Falcon rocket and Dragon freight capsule of SpaceX, I don’t think it is a perfect example of free enterprise beating an entire nation’s system, as some in the media have boasted. However, I do think it proves the great value of graphical system design tools and ideas. The quantity of development team members doesn’t matter as much as the quality of their work. With the help of revolutionary universal software development, verification platform, and strong computing capability, flat management drives the multi-domain complicated product design and verification in a large way. We can see the clues of such development and verification in the hardware-in-the-loop test for a controller based on NI LabVIEW system at an NIDays exhibition.

There are other aerospace companies beyond SpaceX in the U.S. that are targeting aerospace transportation and large-capacity carrier rocket development. The profit-driven and fair competitive commercial environment provides a stage for geniuses and those who can find and use geniuses. It also provides a test field for new tools and ideas. Whether China wants to follow or innovate, it can refer to and learn from these examples. It is true for industry, as well as for aerospace.

- Andy Zhu is editor, Control Engineering China. This article appeared in an earlier edition of CEC and was edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, for use in Control Engineering, mhoske(at)cfemedia.com.

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