The Future Is Now: Dale Amon of Immortal Data On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
That technology really would suddenly make a SpaceX possible and kick in the doors so that the rest of us could follow. I can say I ‘knew it’ and even wrote about it, but I still find it shocking to watch it actually happening. Starship is mind blowing even to those of us with decades of reputation as Futurists. If it doesn’t blow your mind, you have not really understand what has happened and is to come.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dale Amon.
Dale grew up in a small Western Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh and was surrounded by aerospace from his earliest memories. His mother rented space to pilots, stewardesses, Air Traffic Controllers and Air Force personnel from the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. It was the era of Dr. Von Braun and Walt Disney, rockets of the International Geophysical Year, Sputnik and the first satellites. He knew and never doubted he was destined to play a role in moving humanity out into the Universe.
In High School he was the person the teachers queried on anything to do with space flight; when he attended Carnegie Mellon University he took the most difficult of the engineering courses, electrical engineering, spiced with computer design and as much Cognitive Psychology as could fit into his undergraduate schedule. Through those courses he came to know Dr. Herbert Simon, a Nobel Laureate and with his assistance and that of the Electrical Engineering Department head, Dr. Angel Jordan, created a self-defined masters on “A Study of the Human Mind” that included his senior year studies. He also managed to find time to be a local folksinger and a regular with the CMU Scotch and Soda theatrical company which did an original musical each year.
He became involved with entrepreneurship during his summer job after year four at CMU as he transitioned from mostly undergraduate to mostly graduate work. Dr. Dwight Bauman from Mechanical Engineering had set up an effort at CMU to create an early model for turning students and graduate students into entrepreneurs. Dr. Bauman had Dale working for People’s Cab, owned by his Entrepreneurship Center, to keep him on line until there was funding for Dr. Romesh Wahdwani and Dr. Krishnahadi Pribadi’s Compuguard Corporation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I could not say I was brought to it, rather that I was born to it, or at least imprinted on it at such an early age that I can not remember a time before I knew that this was ‘who I am’. One of my very earliest memories is being allowed to stay up after the evening news on black and white TV to watch “Captain Video”, so I know I was already hooked by around age four.
Everything since then has been a series of swings and round-abouts to get to where I could take part in the greatest of humanities adventures. Yes, we had a government program, but I always knew in my heart, at least as f ar as back as the cancellation of pretty much everything after Apollo satisfied the short sighted minds of politicians, that it could not be real until people started making money at it. It has taken longer than I ever imagined possible. I had ties into the earliest of the commercial space ventures, and in fact one of those ‘first generation New Space’ pioneers is a key member of my company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Oh Lord, where to begin? And which are tellable even decades later! I’ll just pick one that is safely back in the mid-1970’s.
Compuguard had sold a building automation system to Galaxy Apartments across the Hudson River from Manhattan and systems were beginning to be installed. Our sales people, as sales people are wont to do, thought it would be a wonderful idea to bring in a group of high level people from the Tri-Service Spec who might consider our systems for a number of government facilities. A great idea. The only problem was, the system was still under construction and my team was still working on the software! This led to long nights and when we were down to the wire I still did not have a working system. I put it onto a bootable cassette tape anyway and was driven to Greater Pitt Airport; I arrived on the job site around midnight with the demo scheduled to start around 0800! I was not in a great mood and Romesh, the President, went out and got me a hamburger and fries as I’d also not had an opportunity to eat.
I settled into the main lobby desk where our computer was ensconced and proceeded to work through the issues one at a time… in an assembly code debugger. I worked out binary patches which I manually entered into memory. By morning I had it working — with one feature exception. I was in a frightful looking state by then, having been working literally for days. I briefed the Prez on what was working and specifically said “DON’T DO X”. I don’t remember what X was, but it was a problem that would cause an immediate crash. I then went off to a side area of the building and laid back in a comfortable easy chair to get some rest. There was also the fact that the sales types did not want the potential customers to wonder why the company had its most senior engineer on site. It was probably an hour or two, but it seemed like minutes and I was rudely awakened by one of our electronics designers who was also there. He told me: “He did X.” To which I responded: “*&%#$@&%*@!!!!!” As it turned out, our leader had recognized what he’d done and taken the visitors up to an upper floor to seen the system in an example apartment. I got to the lobby desk where I had a pad of yellow paper with all of the addresses and the binary patches; I rebooted into the debugger; I typed in the binary patches… and keep in mind that there was NO OPERATING SYSTEM. Our system was it. I then looked at the last temperatures from the outside walls of the building, worked out their values in binary floating point, typed them in and hit GO… just as the call came in from upstairs that he was about to put in an alarm that would print on our printer. It worked. I then went back to the lounge chair, still swearing, and got some sleep. The demo, to the view of any outsider, went well.
I have dozens of stories like this. Absolutely crazy things happen when you are putting untried new systems into facilities that are under construction. Then there was the huge rattlesnake at the Johns-Manville World Headquarters site… but that’s another story.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
There are two facets to what we are doing. The most important one is bringing down the costs. We don’t expect that space hardware will be cheap in a consumer sense, but that said, the market incentives prior to the New Space revolution have been to push costs to insane levels because the taxpayer was footing the bill and the money would flow through key Congressional Districts.
We’re all about changing that by bringing much more commercial management and design to bear on the field. We want small companies that do interesting projects to be able to afford us.
The other element is our patent. The concept of replicating the data over multiple cheap and only lightly ‘armored’ boxes as a replacement for large, heavy and indestructable units (relative to spacecraft requirements at least) is a very different way of approaching the problem of getting back data from a disaster. Add to that our key feature, that of a GPS on each box that will get a few initial readings as a vehicle breaks up, and you have a unique capability that we believe the FAA, NTSB and insurance companies will be very, very interested in.
How do you think this might change the world?
If we do our part to bring down the cost of systems going into space flight, we help bring the day closer when humanity is a multiplanetary species as the National Space Society has said for decades. I might add that I have been a member of the leadership of that organization going back to its roots in the L5 Society and have been a Director for many years.
If we are to bring the entire world up to the level of Americans without trashing the planet, we need to access the cheap, abundant resources and energy that are available out there. We are living through the time that is as important as the first lung fish crawling out of a resource poor pond on its stubby fins. We get to make it happen. I cannot imagine anything more important or bigger than that.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I cannot really. We will make space flight cheaper and safer. There will be accidents and people will die. When that happens you want to learn as much as possible so that the next generation of systems is safer and more reliable. Don’t let anyone fool you. The best we have right now is still at the level of the very first biplane airliners of the 1910 era. It took decades to build to the level of safety we have today. I think with current technologies we can learn more, learn it earlier and deploy that knowledge faster so that spaceships will become safe in a few decades rather than the best part of a century.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Yes. It was Columbia. I was writing for a major early blog in the UK and covered that flight on line. I and others who were very familiar with spacecraft were really worried from the start of the flight that something bad might have happened. It did. Later on I saw some video tape on TV that one of the astronauts on board had taken during re-entry, Chowdra I believe. The penny dropped that a video tape had survived re-entry and been picked up in the middle of Texas and was still good. Magnetic materials have a thing called the Curie Point. That is the temperature at which magnetic domains are ‘unfrozen’ and thus erased. The tape had obviously never got that hot. Many years later, after we were already well into development of the concept, I read the NASA Columbia Crew Survival Report and found that my idea of the randomness of survival of things on a spacecraft were spot on. I believe most, if not all of the space suit radios made it to the ground and were recovered. They were able to read the EPROMS with the serial numbers on them and one even booted up when power was applied!
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
First of all, no one else out there has a patent on the idea of getting tracking data of major parts of a breakup from a distributed network of cheap, redundant modules. Secondly, we are looking at a broader product line than that even. We are implementing a set of Minimum Viable Products that will collect data, store it and distribute it as needed. We are using an open architecture so that we can source data from anyone’s devices by writing a software plug in for it and feed data to anyone’s gadget that needs live, real time data. While elements of this exist now, it is done over and over and over by companies that either think they can do a better job in house or ones that are too small to afford the high cost of equipment from the legacy companies. Additionally, we are going to have a parallel system that is non-aerospace to allow for ground based experimentation and learning about how these kinds of systems work. We’re going to build an enthusiastic user base and grow with them.
In addition to that, as if it were not enough, our team knows pretty much everyone in the business, especially New Space but also in the old guard. We are already discussing behind the scenes with some of the new space companies who realize that our experience base on a systems level might be invaluable to them.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
This has been a relatively stealth operation thus far. Not that we have outright hidden it, but we have been too busy doing our work to get up on the rooftops and shout about it. My preference is also very much to have something real in hand. While I don’t mind shouting about some of our goals and long range plans, I preferred that we actually have some initial ‘real stuff’ in hand.
That said, I have done talks at a number of small conferences with audiences who are very much part of our perceived market.
Beyond that, you are part of the first wave of our real coming out party.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would say people like Dr. Romesh Wahdwani, Dr. Krishnahadi Pribadi and Dr. Dwight Bauman were key to me becoming an entrepreneur. If not for them I probably would have joined the USAF, or gone to work for North American Rockwell, or perhaps run off with a jazz fusion band.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ll tell you when I get there! My philosophy of life has always been to apply the Golden Rule; and to always be sure that when I leave a place, I have left it at least a little better for my having been there.
If true success and wealth come my way, it will be very much dedicated to making sure humanity has a home in the Stars that will be counted in millions, not thousands, or years.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I am not sure I’d have wanted to know! I am pretty sure it was a combination of bullheadedness, self-confidence and reliance that kept me going over the years. I do not think I would have believed how long and hard and round about my personal road to the space industry was going to be. I don’t have a particular story, but:
1) How long it was going to take for commercial space to really take hold.
2) How difficult it was going to be for the Capital markets to recognize that space may be hard, but it is far easier than the old guard make it out to be.
3) How bloody hard the old guard would battle to keep their rice bowls and how nasty the behind the scenes politics would be in those efforts to protect what they had.
4) How indirect and round about my path to my goal would be.
5) That technology really would suddenly make a SpaceX possible and kick in the doors so that the rest of us could follow. I can say I ‘knew it’ and even wrote about it, but I still find it shocking to watch it actually happening. Starship is mind blowing even to those of us with decades of reputation as Futurists. If it doesn’t blow your mind, you have not really understand what has happened and is to come.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Actually I am already on it. I’m pretty close to a charter member of the Space Movement. I go all the way back to the L5 Society in 1979 and through the merger into the National Space Society at a conference I ran in Pittsburgh in 1987 and am currently part of its ‘senior leadership’, a Director, the former Chair of the Conferences committee for 15 years during which I ran the International Space Development Conference. I managed to hand that off to another person and now run the smaller invitation only event, the Space Settlement Summit.
As to movement… yes, NSS has on occassion had members out with picket signs that severely annoyed people in high places who were more interested in their fiefdoms than in opening space to all of us… and to some unfortunate anti-nuclear demonstrators who were shocked to find we outnumbered them at the Galileo Mission launch!
So yes, I have for decades been one of the leaders of just such a social movement. And we are winning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my own personal sayings: “If you want to soar with the eagles, you have to flap your own wings because the only thing they carry with them is prey.”
Basically, you never sit around and cry about what has happened to you or blame it on some person or group. You get up and do it anyway. If you fall down, you dust yourself off and start all over again. (I particularly like the old Frank Sinatra song, “High Hopes”.)
If you want something to happen, you don’t whinge and cry about it. You do it.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Space is hot, and it is not going to be a fad. It is not just tourism and satellites, although those have been mainstays. What is about to burst upon the scene is space as a place for basic industries, mining, manufacturing and energy. It is the next great sphere of human activities just as the Oceans of the world were centuries ago.
Space is hard and nothing made by humans is perfect. Accidents will happen and IDI will be there to ensure that information will be recoverable so that any given problem does not happen again.
Many failures that lead to disaster do not just happen out of nowhere. Data can be collected and stored and analysed with predictive tools that allow intervention before the worst happens. IDI will be there to make sure that data is affordably stored.
America needs entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists who will keep our nation in the forefront in this soon to be contested ‘everything else’. They need an opportunity to learn space hardware and try ventures at low costs; they need to be able to ground test; at somewhat higher cost they need to learn through doing in suborbital and small sats. They need systems they can trust as they grow in their industry and move out into long term and deep space projects. They need reliable data collection and storage at as low a price as possible with the technology of the time. IDI will be there.
Space is risky and many large ventures will try and many will fail. But everyone needs systems for their test stands, their sounding rockets, their small sats, their hypersonic flight system, their deep space vessels, their space stations, their lunar and martian habitats and human exploratory vessels. Someone must provide those with electronic and data systems and to assist in the system’s designs. IDI will be there.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
The Future Is Now: Dale Amon of Immortal Data On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.