Wonder what it’s like to work here?
It’s fantastic! For the right person. But not for everyone. Maybe not even for most people.
It’s hard to describe, but we’ll give it a shot.
Imagine it’s the year 1900
You dream one day people will fly from place to place, so you’re not exactly a mainstream thinker. You feel strongly about it, and decide to work to make it happen. So far, so good. Now comes the harder question. You’re holding two job offers:
You’d be working for a rich guy (a billionaire by today’s standards). His company is 100% devoted to flight; no distractions. He’s already got hordes of people designing and building. Lots of specialists with advanced degrees. Great followership. The factory is near a picturesque lake with views of mountains. Best of all, his vehicle makes obvious sense. It’s a logical, incremental extension of technology that’s been around for decades. He’s just making it bigger, more-controllable, and more-reusable. He’s already started flight testing a prototype. It’s bold and aggressive, but not crazy. He offers a handsome salary with full health benefits. The guy is visionary and charismatic, a showman who gets lots of media attention. The government supports the work with funding. People are talking about him at parties, and pay more attention to you when you mention you’ve got a job offer there. Lots of validation. Your spouse thinks it’s perfect. What could be more promising than working for Count von Zeppelin!
The second job offer is from a small business: two brothers, with a sister who plays some role but you’re not quite sure what. They’re not famous, and don’t have a lot of money. They say flight is their passion but they devote a lot of time to other lines of business like their bicycle shop. Only a handful of people work there. These people work across a bunch of technologies, teaching themselves as needed. Their work is highly analytical, but doesn’t seem to fit formal academic pigeonholes. They’re in some little city you rarely hear about and have never been to. Worst of all, their technology makes no sense. They’re building a machine that’s heavier than air. Really smart people like Thomas Edison say that’s impossible. They show you a prototype and, well, . . . it just looks weird. The best you can do is smile and politely say “it’s, um, very counter-intuitive.” They aren’t flying any machines yet, and instead spend time flying kites and testing tiny models indoors. They talk quietly and confidently, but you’re concerned they’re fringe. (Maybe lunatic fringe; they’re trying to harness instability rather than fight it.) These folks are plain spoken, with no charisma and zero mass-media appeal. The government’s not rushing to fund them. Mention their names at a party and no one has heard of them. And your spouse isn’t wild about moving to Dayton. Hard to see what the Wrights will ever accomplish.
No-brainer, right? You’d be crazy to go work at some bicycle factory. Most practical, forward-thinking people would pick the big company incrementally improving tried-and-true technology.
Yeah, that’s not us. We’re more inspired by the folks in Ohio. The parallels aren’t exact (their business plan was nothing to write home about, and we seek more follow‑on innovation; more a combination of the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss), but you get the idea.
To most people in the year 1900, the Wrights seemed off the mark. Conquering flight didn’t seem the right transportation goal; heavier-than-air didn’t seem the right path; kites and wind-tunnel tests didn’t seem the right method; and bicycle mechanics didn’t seem the right people. Most people’s comfort zone extended to incremental improvements. It wasn’t a stretch to think a balloon might incrementally evolve into a little dirigible, and from there into a much bigger dirigible. Transformational improvements were outside their comfort zone. It was too much of stretch to see how an aeroplane could ever lift a person, let alone groups of people.
We face some similar issues here. Easy to see how an expendable rocket evolves into a reusable one, then grows into a bigger rocket. Harder to see how an electric launch vehicle could ever fly, let alone take people to space. While we’ve worked the basic challenge of getting external power to flight vehicles, there remains a lot of undiscovered country. Much common intuition about flight flows from limits imposed by combustion, not aerodynamics. Those limitations fall by the wayside with an electric engine, particularly one that draws power from external sources. Sorting through what’s do-able and not in this new era takes a select combination of intelligence, analysis, creativity and grit. It helps to have a willingness to fail, but only if joined with curiosity to learn and tenacity to succeed.
We’re working transformational technologies, where no one has gone before. This can be lonely country. Out here your best friends are hard logic and real data. We have principles we live and work by but, like we said, it’s not for everybody. For the right person, it’s fantastic!