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Data Sheet—Space, the Universe, and Everything Else at Brainstorm Tech

July 20, 2018, 1:15 PM UTC

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Putting on a big conference like Fortune’s just concluded Brainstorm Tech gathering takes huge effort from dozens of people. I was grateful just to have a supporting role, moderating interesting sessions with interesting speakers and writing up the news from some other panels. The highlight for me was talking to Dan Hart and Howard Lance, a couple of CEOs in the burgeoning private space market, up on the big stage on Wednesday morning. I’ve been captivated by the space race since I was a little kid, fueled by a cousin’s hand-me-down set of Mattel’s Astronaut Major Matt Mason (who I brought on stage as our fourth, silent panelist).

mattel toy astronaut major matt mason

Backstage before the session, both CEOs told me stories of their long involvement with our (mostly) government-run space program over the past few decades. Both men lived near Cape Canaveral at times, and saw some of our most memorable launches up close. They’re also both electric guitar players.

Hart runs Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, a startup trying to create a cheap and flexible method of launching small satellites from a rocket that starts the first seven miles of the journey spaceward strapped to a 747 airplane. Lance is heading Maxar Technologies, a merger-built one stop shop for satellite creation and some space services like earth imaging. Funny and relaxed, both spoke expansively on stage about the amazing-sounding opportunities from commercializing the heavens.

Still, it’s an open question whether they and their peers, fueled by the billions of dollars of a few tech billionaires and even more public and private capital, can build the commercial space economy to the $1 trillion level that analysts have dreamt of. Many things will need to go right, including things that have gone wrong in the past, before-for example-any of the plans to create ubiquitous global internet access from space come to fruition. We’re going to need breakthrough innovations, sharp leadership in both the government and corporate sectors, plus a dollop of good fortune, to achieve all of the industry’s potential. There will probably be more than a few great stories to report on along the way, too. So stay tuned.

We had some technical glitches on Thursday with the servers that distribute Data Sheet. Apologies if your issue arrived later than usual. Back issues as always are available here.

Aaron Pressman


There is a theory, which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.—Douglas Adams

Don't panic. A group of hackers tied to Russia’s military have launched spear-phishing campaigns against at least three candidates running for election in 2018, according to Tom Burt, vice president for customer security at Microsoft. Burt didn't name the candidates, but said all three were "people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint as well as an election disruption standpoint.” Meanwhile, three of the FBI's top cybersecurity leaders are resigning, the Wall Street Journal reports.

They’d all made a big mistake. RAICES, the Texas-based nonprofit that has raised millions to help reunite migrant families detained at the border, turned down a $250,000 donation from Salesforce, citing the company's work for the Customs and Border Protection agency. “When it comes to supporting oppressive, inhumane, and illegal policies, we want to be clear: the only right action is to stop,” executive director Jonathan Ryan wrote in a letter turning down the donation. Salesforce said it was not working on CBP's forcible separation of families and opposed the policy.

Space is big, really big. On Wall Street, Microsoft announced quarterly results showing continued strong growth in its cloud services effort. Total revenue of $30.1 billion was up 17% including a 23% gain to $9.6 billion in "intelligent cloud" sales. Microsoft shares, already up 23% this year, gained another 3% in premarket trading on Friday.

Total perspective vortex. Verizon and its largest unions agreed to extend a hard fought 2016 contract covering about 34,000 employees for another four years, avoiding potentially contentious negotiations next year. The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers agreed to additional wage increases totaling 11%, two years after members went out on a bitter, seven-week strike.

So long and thanks for all the fish. Some self-driving car startups are aiming for less than total world domination. Voyage, which is building autonomous vehicles for retirement home communities, is one. The company just hired Uber's director of engineering, Drew Grey, as chief technology officer, TechCrunch reports. That followed the hire of Uber's policy head for autonomous vehicles and aviation, Justin Erlich, to run its legal and regulatory efforts.


A few longer reads that I came across this week that may be appealing for your weekend reading pleasure:

Amazon's War on Gear (Outside)
The e-commerce behemoth is on its way to becoming the biggest marketplace for outdoor-recreation products and its influence over the industry grows every day. Is this the apocalypse for the shops and brands that have fueled our love of adventure? Or can they learn to fight back without destroying one another?

How E-Commerce Is Transforming Rural China (The New Yorker)
Analysts predict that China’s online retail market will double in size in the next two years, and that the growth will come disproportionately from third- and fourth-tier cities and from the country’s vast rural hinterland. At a time when the Chinese government has instituted monumental infrastructure programs to develop these regions, companies like JD are providing a market-driven counterpart, which is likely to do for China what the Sears, Roebuck catalogue did for America in the early twentieth century.

Project ‘Fuchsia’: Google Is Quietly Working on a Successor to Android (Bloomberg)
The project, known as Fuchsia, was created from scratch to overcome the limitations of Android as more personal devices and other gadgets come online. It’s being designed to better accommodate voice interactions and frequent security updates and to look the same across a range of devices, from laptops to tiny internet-connected sensors. Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai has set his company in this direction -- toward artificial intelligence services that reach consumers everywhere. Yet its prime operating systems, which depend on scores of hardware partners, haven’t kept up.

The New Gwen Stefani Is a Lot Like the Old One (BuzzFeed)
Sexy but pure. Strong but accessible. “The perfect Trojan horse,” as Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson put it. “She seems very benign and wholesome, but underneath lurks an incredible toughness and powerful directness. Nobody can copy her, because she’s this uniquely extraordinary contradiction.” The ability to reconcile those contradictions has always been at the very heart of her appeal.


As you may have heard, Russian attacks on our electoral system are continuing. Many states are working to improve the security of their voting systems, but the question is whether it will be enough to fend off the increasingly sophisticated intrusions from abroad. Eric Geller at Politico has written up a survey the publication did of the efforts in all 50 states (40 responded). The results are not exactly reassuring:

But less than four months before the midterm elections that will shape the rest of Donald Trump’s presidency, most states’ election offices have failed to fix their most glaring security weaknesses, according to a POLITICO survey of all 50 states.

And few states are planning steps that would improve their safeguards before November, even after they receive their shares of the $380 million in election security funding that Congress approved in March.

Only 13 states said they intend to use the federal dollars to buy new voting machines. At least 22 said they have no plans to replace their machines before the election—including all five states that rely solely on paperless electronic voting devices, which cybersecurity experts consider a top vulnerability.


70% of Americans Think Technology Increases People's Bias By Kristen Bellstrom

Uber's Latest Partnership Means That Drivers Can Hawk You Things While You're Riding By Natasha Bach

WhatsApp Has a New Plan for Fighting Its Lethal Fake News Problem By David Meyer

Apple Releases 3rd iOS 12 Beta to Everyone. Here’s What’s New By Lisa Marie Segarra

Alphabet's Loon Will Send Internet-Beaming Balloons to Kenya By Jonathan Vanian

How the EU’s $5 Billion Fine Could Be Fatal for Google By Rita Gunther McGrath

Hate the Airport? AI Wants to Help By Bob Friday


Until now, the most powerful electron microscopes could picture individual atoms in a somewhat fuzzy state, operating at a resolution of 1 ångström, or one ten-billionth of a meter. A group of researchers at Cornell just developed a technique dubbed Electron Microscope Pixel Array Detector, or EMPAD, to break that limit and picture individual atoms at a resolution of less than 0.4 ångströms. Check out the bright, shiny molybdenum and sulfur atoms in this new shot.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.