Design lessons from the badminton birdie

Image by Rebecca Partington via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Rebecca Partington via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One may not naturally associate badminton birdies with space flight, but Burt Rutan saw a connection. A shuttlecock inspired his solution to a significant engineering problem.

The Ansari X-Prize was created in 1996 to spur the development of private space travel. Ten million dollars was offered to the first team capable of designing a re-usable system that could take three people 100 km above the Earth, then return them safely to the ground, and do so twice within a two week period. Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, in collaboration with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, developed a vehicle called SpaceShipOne which won the X-Prize in October 2004. Continue reading

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Brunos and Smoots

We recently spent a lecture in my first year engineering course introducing the concepts of units, unit systems, and unit conversions. We talked about meters and feet. We discussed kilograms and slugs, pounds mass and pounds force. We even talked about esoteric units like furlongs and fortnights. But I realized afterward that I’ve short-changed their education by not mentioning two important engineering units: the bruno and the smoot. Both these units were created by (and named for) undergraduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Continue reading

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