The recent NASA and SpaceX launch of two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) marked a return, after nearly a decade of the USA's ability to send astronauts to space under its own terms and from within its own borders. It was also the first time that any private company has launched people into orbit. We are transitioning into a new era in spaceflight. But what does that really mean? What's so new about it? And what, if anything, can more terrestrially minded companies learn from it about the future?
Floating in a tin can?
The clearest signs of a new era, beyond ownership and control, were in the changing relationship between astronauts and spacecraft. We have become used to thinking of astronauts as death-defying heroes. They not only head out into the unknown but they do it atop a barely controlled explosive device containing, as those of us who followed the Apollo program like to think, less computing capacity than our mobile phones. The rocket was like a dragster: Fast, dumb, and wild. The archetypal astronaut was its driver: Cool under pressure, brave, measured, able to thread the needle between optimal performance and near-certain catastrophe, a risk whisperer; like a champion downhill skier -- though heading in the opposite direction -- neither quite in control nor quite out.
But this launch was not that, despite the obvious similarities and continuities. There was a rocket, certainly, on the same launchpad, 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where NASA launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions. And there was Endeavour, the name given by the astronauts to the Dragon spacecraft as a clear link to the last space shuttle ever built and that both astronauts had flown.
As the launch progressed, however, and we were able to watch it unfold thanks to a video camera giving us a backseat view, the difference became clear. The astronauts were as comfortable in their rocketship as in the Tesla Model X used to deliver them to the launchpad. The vehicle went about its business and did all the work, smoothly, efficiently, quietly, nominally. Its passengers sat there, safely buckled in, obviously enjoying the ride.
By the time Dragon reached the ISS, it felt like the extreme rigors and risks of spaceflight had been replaced by something safer, more achievable perhaps even by mere mortals. Chris Cassidy, the NASA astronaut already on board the ISS, who greeted them said: "When we got that hatch open, you could tell it was a brand new vehicle, with smiley faces on the other side, [a] smiley face on mine -- just as if you had bought a new car, the same kind of reaction. Wonderful to see my friends and wonderful to see a brand new vehicle." Just a couple of dudes, showing off their dope new ride to an old buddy!
As we await their return journey to Earth for final confirmation, all the tests so far show that Dragon has performed beyond expectations. It has been fully autonomous for the duration of the journey, except during the two early manual tests, doing its job of delivering the astronauts to the ISS and enabling them to do theirs.
Autonomy is a core component of future businesses
Autonomy is a core component of Elon Musk's vision for the future. Nearly all of the technologies he develops are designed to be, or become, autonomous, from the Tesla cars on earth to the growing constellation of Starlink satellites and the Dragon in orbit. And If all goes well, the Dragon will be succeeded by the still more powerful Starship, capable of delivering up to 100 people at a time to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
When we think about autonomy, it's easy to picture machines getting smarter and smarter, putting humans out of work and making us increasingly dependent and increasingly marginalized. But if we are to take any lessons from SpaceX and Tesla, we should realize that the relationship between us and technology can be mutually beneficial. As we have previously discussed here, conventional cars require us to be machine operators. The autonomous car on the other hand frees us up to get on with business or leisure activities or even just some R&R while getting us to our destination safely, accurately and on time. The autonomous spaceship will do the same thing.
More importantly, these technologies improve access and increase market size. The autonomous car will open up mobility to people with disabilities, to the aged and infirm as well as to the young, and to any others who either choose not to or who are unable to drive. The autonomous spaceship will have an even more dramatic effect. On the one hand, it will render obsolete the profession of astronaut as we currently know it. But on the other it will massively open up the number and type of people able to go to space, including engineers and scientists at first but an increasing number of existing and new professions soon thereafter and finally space emigrants, those simply wanting to live off the Earth.
Autonomous technologies can, therefore, be of enormous potential value to us humans. They can free us up to do the things we value and are good at. They can remove barriers to entry and therefore open up access and increase market size. They can take in far more data far more quickly than we can and make better decisions and take swifter, safer action.
But first, to be autonomous, technologies like cars (and spaceships) have to be far more connected to the outside world than their traditional counterparts. To function effectively and safely, they have to sense the other cars and conditions around them, know about changing conditions along the way (e.g. a crash closer to the destination that has caused a build-up of traffic on that particular road), and be connected to its maker for any potential upgrades that it may need to support the current journey or future ones. They have to be more than technologies, they have to be systems.
The Future Organization: Symbiotic Autonomy
We think the company of the future will be like an autonomous spaceship or car. It will be powered by AI and other digital technologies to increase speed and relevance of the company to customer needs. It will free us from clerical and other repetitive tasks that, frankly, we're not very good at, and it will help us make better, faster decisions and take better, faster actions. It will force us, in a good way, to refocus on our unique qualities, like our abilities to imagine and create brand new products, experiences, solutions, and other forms of value, and our ability to have empathy for others and to build relationships of trust with them.
"The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur." -- Elon Musk
In some ways, we're already not so far off. We already use technology to support many of our business processes. But we're still responsible for the driving, and our corporate senses are just not nearly as attuned to our customers and the markets as they need to be. We still have accidents -- "collisions" -- with our customers or partners that could be avoided with better sensing capabilities and with more responsive "handling".
So, what do we need to do? Simple. Our companies need to be far more connected to the world outside. They need to be directed by a mission (purpose, vision, future state) and by maps (plans, directions, alternate routes for achieving the mission), but they are ultimately dependent on having and interpreting real-time data (state of the customer, state of the market, state of the business) to act and navigate a path towards achieving their goals or reaching their destination.
That real-time data comes from having "sensors" at every edge of the company, every touch-point, every marketing campaign, every sales activity, every service call. And that's just the start. They need to know what people are saying about them even indirectly. Every complaint about a poor interaction or a missed delivery or an unmet expectation, as well as every compliment. Technologies are much better at this than we are and we should take advantage of these capabilities wherever possible and start to build higher and higher levels of autonomy. The autonomous business of today and tomorrow also needs a single source of truth about its stakeholders. Accurate and timely data about stakeholders -- employees, customers, partners, and communities -- delivered throughout the entire business ecosystem, will position the business for movement and optimal speed.
Speed is the new currency of business, but you cannot be fast if you are not designed for movement. Mobility, continuity, and autonomy are key components of movement, which enable optimal speed and business relevance in this next normal economy. Speed to value is how companies will earn relevance. Growth in a hyper-connected, knowledge-sharing economy will be a function of trust, relevance, and speed to value.
The company of the future will be a new type of symbiotic organization of autonomous technology and autonomous humans, working effectively together, accelerating the flow of value, as and when needed, to our customers and all other stakeholders in the ecosystem.