Last week SpaceX launched its most recent flight to supply the International Space Station (ISS). Following a flawless launch, there was a problem with the thrusters on the Dragon capsule itself. Thanks to a quick analysis of the failure and rapid problem solving, the engineers were able to fix the problem, enabling completion of the mission. Right now, Dragon is docked at the ISS, waiting to take on discarded materials and completed experiments for return trips to earth.
When I first learned of the events (I missed the actual launch and heard the news after the fix had been implemented), I was actually delighted. This was better than a perfect launch. The fact is, space flight is still risky business, still in its childhood (if not late infancy). Contrary to flight controller Gene Kranz’s statement, “Failure is not an option”- failure is inevitable when venturing into new territory. The trick is learning from mistakes to improve the product or service, making the next iteration that much better.
SpaceX and the other private ventures are each developing new technologies to enable more effective, efficient, reliable, and nimble vehicles than those created by NASA. What they are designing and the processes they are using are different. They are all learning as they go. The result is innovation happening much faster and at much lower cost.
SpaceX’s last flight to ISS experienced a problem with the Falcon rocket that was carrying the Dragon capsule. That time, too, engineers on the ground quickly found a work-around to ensure success of the mission. Before these missions, SpaceX had done several test flights. Some of the tests had to be aborted just before launch. Each time, it was a question of weeks- not months or years- before they were able to try again. The whole operation has been a wonderful example of thoughtful experimentation and modification, always failing forward to success.
Kudos to SpaceX. I bet it will be the first private company to launch a person into space.