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Astronaut Anne McClain on designing and piloting the next generation of spacecraft

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NASA recently announced the astronauts who will be taking part in the Artemis missions, and among them is Anne McClain, who has spent 203 days in orbit and conducted two spacewalks on the ISS. With the space industry looking nothing like it did 10 years ago and new spacecraft and technologies on the rise, McClain share her thoughts about how she and other astronauts would be embracing the future.

Lt. Col. McClain’s time aboard the ISS spanned from December 2018 to June of 2019, meaning her ascent and descent were both aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsules, as astronauts have gotten to and from space since the Shuttle days. The Artemis missions, however, will use a variety of new launch vehicles and spacecraft. And while she didn’t get to fly a Dragon capsule, she did get to check one out while it was docked at the station.

“I was so happy to have flown the Soyuz, because it is such a reliable, basic spacecraft — it’s almost like flying a piece of history — knowing I was going to be able to compare that to other vehicles to in the future,” she said. “I had the opportunity when I was on Space Station when DM-1 flew. And so, being able to float into that and look at their screens, their monitors, you notice right away that the technology has advanced to where it looks like the inside of a commercial airliner.”

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were the first to pilot a Dragon in orbit, and said afterwards that it was “certainly different,” partly due to the reliance on touchscreens as primary interfaces for many spacecraft functions. McClain emphasized the difficulty of getting software to the point where it can be trusted with someone’s life.

“Most of the vehicles that we’re using now are very heavy on software — lots of touchscreens, not so much valves that were physically moving, it’s more like a software relay. But that adds a huge amount of complexity, because as your readers are probably well aware, approving software and the reliability of software is difficult,” she explained.

We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do.

“We’re always looking at the question of, when should a human be in the loop, and when should it be automated? And if it’s automated, how can we prove the software has reliability sufficient for human spaceflight? At some point you have to say, ‘You know what, if this happens, we’re going to put a human in the loop,’ just so you’re not paralyzed by 10 years of software testing.”

As a pilot herself, McClain naturally has opinions on this, and like Hurley and Behnken, worked with SpaceX early on.

“I was fortunate to work with Bob and Doug, advising SpaceX early on in their cockpit controls, and I think where they got, it’s a really incredible machine,” she said, while noting that the Orion and Starliner craft received similar attentions from experts like her.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now.

Flexibility was chief among the desired aspects; If things go even a little off script, they need the tools to be flexible and not self-limiting.

“I think, pilots, we always want options, right? Whatever happens, we want options. As much as we try to predict scenarios on the ground, we’re always keenly aware that something could happen that wasn’t predicted, and at that point… we want options,” she said. “We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do. So it’s really important for me that the software doesn’t take options off the table. That’s one of the reasons why, at NASA, they look at the Apollo 13 case, when we had to use hardware and software and the vehicle in ways that we’d never predicted.”

When I asked whether it was different or strange to work with newer companies like Blue Origin, McClain pointed out that really, the only new thing there is the name.

CG Render of what Blue Origin and Lockheed's lunar lander is expected to look like.“I’ve worked with these companies enough to know something, and that’s that yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now, which is exactly what NASA wants to do. That is our human capital,” she explained. “The other thing I’m confident about is the way NASA partners with these companies, for test programs and design reviews, it’s extremely thorough. So by the time that rocket has me on top of it on a pad, I’m confident in in the checks and balances we have in place.”

That technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.

Lastly I asked about whether any conveniences of modern consumer tech had made it more bearable to spend long periods of time in space, for instance the fairly recent capability to do video calls. McClain was quick to answer in the positive.

“What you said is exactly it. Imagine if we were in this pandemic and weren’t able to video chat — we’re already feeling disconnected from our loved ones. And you know, feeling disconnected is the same whether you’re on the other side of the country or you’re in space. So the ability for us to be able to see our parents’ faces on the screen and talk to them, it really does wonders,” she said. “And it’s not just morale. You know, you start looking at six month, twelve month missions, it’s really maintaining the psyche, maintaining human mental health. So that technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.”

McClain is one of 18 astronauts who will take part in the missions leading up to the planned Moon landing. You can meet the rest here.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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