Whether it’s traveling to Mars or staying competitive in our industry, we need velocity and maximum efficiency to get there. In this post, Charles Callistro shares his observations on how the concept behind the Photonic Railway applies effectively to the workplace.

Recently, Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s proposal for colonizing Mars. My first thought was “Wow!” and my second thought was “that reminds me, I should finish that article I’ve been thinking about.”

You see, as I watched the animation of this incredible idea, the solar panels part actually disappointed me (check out a video of the solar panels here). The 200kw of power the solar panels draw is great for internal use; for lights, microwave ovens, all that human-related stuff that will need to happen. None of that will contribute to acceleration of the ship, however, and the ship will have an ‘interplanetary coast’ of 100,800k km/h. Most of these plans estimate about 6 months to get to Mars. This is too slow for me! We need to speed things up!

It’s not that I’m impatient when it comes to getting to Mars. I know all too well that in reality, we can’t coast in business.

We can’t find a velocity that’s stable and then rely on that velocity forever. Our competitors will find a higher velocity, the industry will change, technology will be developed, and today’s really fast will be next year’s quite slow.

What we have to do to stay competitive, and in fact, to be the example that I feel we are in our industry, is constantly accelerate. NASA feels this will be necessary technology as we begin to explore our solar and extrasolar neighborhood, and I feel this is necessary in the work world.

Some cool space stuff

NASA commissioned some research from a very smart guy named Young K. Bae on a method to speed things up, and I find it fascinating. Although it’s still in early experimental phases, it is theoretically and mathematically sound. Using this method, they’re guessing a trip to Mars could take a much more tolerable three to ten days. I like to think it will be an elegant trip, with a dining room and overstuffed chairs and that pets would be allowed.

This concept has lots of formulas I don’t understand, like this:

The mathematical formula for calculating the total photon thrust for Bae's propulsion concept.

But I do believe I understand the ideas that Dr. Bae is discussing. Usually when I’m trying to break down something complicated, I use my awesome MS-Paint skills because I’m preternaturally gifted in them.

Here’s how a basic rocket works:

An MS Paint illustration of Major Tom flying a rocket that uses traditional propellant.

You have the rocket part with the guys in it, but most of the rocket part is actually just a giant fuel (propellant) tank. The propellant burns and creates force, and when you turn it off (if you can), or it runs out of propellant, you coast.

What Dr. Bae did was work off a different model. What if you used a solar sail, which relies on photons to propel itself and anything attached to it, and aimed an Earth-orbiting laser at it? If you did that, your rocket wouldn’t need all that space for propellant which is upwards of 90% of the mass of the rocket. You’re pushing something while leaving the power at home. This laser system is called a Photonic Laser Thruster.

An MS Paint illustration of the solar sail model, which has a small compartment for people and a large solar sail driven by a laser. Image above not to scale

So now you have a vehicle with much less mass to push, and if you keep the laser pointed at it, it’s never coasting, it’s always increasing in velocity. This is great, like incredibly great. This is putting your foot to the gas pedal and there’s no floor beneath the pedal to stop it, it just keeps increasing.

Y.K. Bae realized how much better it can be.

One of the cool things about lasers is they are focused, their beams don’t expand as you point them, which is necessary to be able to really get some oomph for this versus a giant light bulb like the sun. Think about it.

What Dr. Bae figured out is so brilliant and simple. He realized that adding mirrors and bouncing the same light back allows it to be used again with no additional energy required.

An illustration of the same solar sail model, with the laser bouncing off of mirrors on the craft, increasing velocity.

Now we’re not only constantly accelerating, but we’re increasing the force applied by reusing the same light we’ve already generated!

Dr. Bae’s experiments are in early phases, but the most recent reports indicate that by using more mirrors we should be able to get one thousand times or more amplification through recycling the light.

Dr. Bae calls this a Photonic Railway, which is not only a cool name but a cool description. Think about it. The beam goes back and forth through mirrors to the ship a few dozen times. Then what? Then you bounce it off a different mirror and send it in a different direction, creating another path to sail on for another ship. You could even put mirrors on the ships and have them bounce light to each other, for example to one further ahead of it, and create a space ship train! Choo choo!

The same solar sail model with mirrors reflecting to other spacecraft. Hashtag mindblown.

Some Cool Work Stuff

Not only was I fascinated by the Photonic Railway, I also realized there’s a lesson to be learned here.

When working in a Lean environment, we strive to do more with less, and the Photonic Railway is a nice metaphor for that concept. By leveraging what we’ve created, we’re able to provide more for our clients.

I imagine some of you are thinking “you’re talking about recycling content!” and wagging your fingers, but I’m not suggesting recycling content. I’m suggesting the gathering of empirical evidence, through review of procedures, projects and interactions, in a way that allows us to utilize what works again, while also improving on it.

Rapid changes are always underway here at Simply Accessible, after all, our company meme is “Oh, that’s how we do it now.” Our metaphorical mirrors bounce information back and forth constantly. We recently delivered some data to a client in a way we hadn’t before, due to the client’s requirements. We were thrilled that the client liked the way we did it, and that got us to thinking, “Why don’t we do it this way all the time?” (This is a question I often ask after something goes especially well.)

A retrospective on this not only showed us that it was a good system, but also that it could be improved upon even further. Within two days, we were adding more features to the new delivery method and beta testing it with other clients, getting feedback and improving upon it constantly.

We weren’t recycling content, which is understandably a frowned-upon and shoddy business practice, but instead were taking something that worked particularly well for someone and expanding upon it to provide it to others, without reinventing the wheel in the process. Our clients are unique, and will always need and desire the attention to detail and craftsmanship we put in every project. This is about adding to that, not replacing that. Amplifying the light.

When something works well, bounce it back out to others. Improve on it. Add it to your toolbox, and make it your new standard – for today. By doing so, you’ll keep accelerating. Coasting is predictable, but also predictably slow. Rocket ahead!