On January 18, 2016, SpaceX attempted once more to land their Falcon 9 rocket on a barge in the ocean. The resulting failure was pretty spectacular (there were no people aboard, and no one was injured):
Throughout most of the history of SpaceX, Elon Musk has been quite public about his company’s many successes, and occasional misfires/spectacular explosions. Let’s remember what the SpaceX team is trying to do – land a rocket that has flown to space and delivered a payload, in an effort to make rockets reusable, and thus bring down the cost of spaceflight. Before SpaceX, this was something that had never been done before. And prior to this attempted landing, SpaceX has succeeded several times, with varying levels of both precision and difficulty in the attempt.
No matter what, however, within days, Elon Musk releases the video of the attempt. In the case of the failed landing and explosion video, he accompanied it with a simple, brief technical explanation of a possible cause:
“Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn’t latch on one the four legs, causing it to tip over post landing. Root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff.”
No attempt to make excuses, or assure anyone that this will never happen again, or cowtow to shareholders in the company. What SpaceX is attempting to do is really, really, really hard, and explosive results are an inevitable part of that. Can you imagine GM releasing that kind of statement if one of their brand new concept cars didn’t start at a car show? Of course not – there would be apologies and finger-pointing and people would be fired. Think back to the Obama administration’s investments in renewable energy companies a few years ago. The companies that we remember are the ones that went bankrupt after the Department of Energy loan – Solyndra, Fisker, and Abound. Companies who received the assistance defaulted on $780 million dollars – which is only a 2.28% default rate. That means that over 97% of the loaned money was not defaulted on. In fact, a few years later, and the government is turning an overall profit from those loans. But still, the thing that we remember about that program, and the thing that many people judge that program on, are the few companies that did fail, the small percentage that did default. This is demonstrative of a failure-adverse culture that is becoming prevalent. Many teachers I think would recognize this in their students – top students are looking to be told what to do, how to get an A, rather than exploring and experiments and risking the possibility of failure.
However, failure is a major part of success. Progress cannot be made without risk, and with risk comes not the potential, but the reality of failure. Greatness and progress come when failure is overcome, as Elon Musk and the SpaceX team are doing. While I can’t speak for Mr. Musk’s motivations in posting videos of failure, I can see a potential attempt to shift our thinking. By sharing his failures publicly and with no apology, Mr. Musk is embracing his failures, learning from them – and helping us to learn along with them. I sincerely hope that he continues this trend with all of his companies, and that other companies who could push the limits take comfort, and perhaps a bit of courage, in witnessing the failures of others, so that they can equally embrace and learn from their own. After all, that’s how we progress as a society.
And besides. When Elon Musk fails, it’s usually accompanied by a big explosion. Which always makes for a fun video.