Thrilling Images of Failure in New Space

April 21, 2015

The tech industry’s “fail fast, fail often” mantra has proven successful in pumping out world-changing innovations in record time. The faster one figures out what doesn’t work, the faster one can get to something that does. It is why, as I’ve written previously, failure is a good thing that is a natural consequence of the innovation process.

Now, it’s one thing to fail en route to success but another thing entirely to share all of those failures with the world. In the private sector-driven New Space industry, one of the most challenging, expensive and exciting fields today, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is eagerly showing its failures, and people are cheering them on.

Since 2012, SpaceX has been shuttling cargo to the International Space Station. In its two most recent launches SpaceX has been trying to do something that no other rocket launcher has tried to do – land its first stage on a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean.  Normally after a rocket lifts off, the first stage components fall into the ocean and sink to the bottom.  Such a barge landing would not only be off the chart awesome from a technical and visual standpoint but would allow the first stage of the rocket to be reusable.

In both attempts, the first stage landing on the barge has failed.  The first time  because it came down too hard and crashed on the barge.  At the second attempt, the rocket came down off center  and tilted over and exploded.   In both instances, SpaceX and Musk shared the photos and footage and both were breathtaking.  In watching the footage, you can’t help but feel for the scientists and engineers who pour their hearts, minds and souls into something that no one has ever accomplished.  They are getting so close to actually doing something no one has ever tried before but just seem to fall short before everything goes KABLOOEEY! That just short of the edge of success is in itself is a reason to keep trying. Every challenging, exploratory endeavor fails, until it doesn’t.

Yet, attempting to recover rockets is important for commercial reasons. One of the biggest challenges in bringing down the cost of reaching orbit is that the rockets needed to reach space have been, to date, unrecoverable. Building a new rocket from scratch for every launch is costly, but no one has yet figured out how to save and reuse the primary rocket that fall back to Earth as a spacecraft reaches orbit. NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle program was remarkable for its time in part because it allowed the U.S. space agency to reuse the same spacecraft for years, as well as the two solid rocket motors which would parachute into the water and be retrieved safely after they landed.  The result of those efforts saved money, resources and man-hours.

But landing on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic?  That’s like trying to catch a baseball fired from a beachside cannon while you’re floating in an inner tube a couple of hundred miles off the beach!  That’s mindblowing and if it works and they “stick the landing,” SpaceX will once again rewrite the aerospace industry playbook which they’ve been doing almost nonstop since they opened their doors.

Maybe the third time will be the charm for them. Maybe it won’t but their efforts keep moving them towards achieving the heretofore impossible, and it will change the space industry forever. Trips to orbit will be vastly cheaper, opening up a new era in commercial space and lowering barriers to entry for a variety of companies to explore, innovate, and literally take us to new worlds.  It will also force everyone else in the industry to step up their game too.  That’s what competition does in the marketplace and it just seems SpaceX is winning that battle even when they share their failures as publicly as they do.  I know I’m cheering them on and I’m not alone in that effort either.