Published in The Patriot Ledger November 8, 2014
Last year in this space I wrote about the prospects of space tourism, and urged you to sign up soon for a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic, which was likely to start its flights this year. I don’t know if any of you followed my advice, but if you did, you were probably disturbed by the crash last week of Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two, killing one of the two pilots (the other escaped by parachute). Fortunately, there were no other passengers.
This was a test flight, the fourth rocket-powered flight of this ship, but the first using a new plastic–based rocket fuel. The previous rubber-based fuel had shown instabilities, producing a rougher ride than desirable for passengers paying up to a quarter of a million dollars each for a brief ride about 60 miles above Earth.
News coverage of the Virgin Galactic crash was commonly linked with the report a few days earlier of the explosion, shortly after launch, of a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station. This was an unmanned rocket, and no one was injured, but many millions of dollars of supplies were lost. The rocket was operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation, and the two failures in the same week were viewed as a serious setback for commercial spaceflight.
They were also a reminder of early well-publicized failures in our government space program. In December 1957, a few months after the Soviets shocked us with the successful launch into orbit of Sputnik, the Navy attempted to launch a small satellite into orbit with a Vanguard rocket. The rocket lifted only a few feet off the ground before exploding. Soviet launches were kept secret until successful, but the embarrassing Vanguard failure occurred in full view of the public and the press, and became widely known as “flopnik.” The US space program became the subject of many jokes.
But a few months later, the US successfully launched an Explorer satellite into orbit, and before long, launching satellites into orbit became routine. Thousands have been launched, including communication, weather, GPS, and military satellites. The failure of “flopnik” was followed by thousands of important successes we take for granted today.
The US space program regained international prestige with the Apollo program that landed men on the moon. But in 1967, it too had a rocky start with Apollo 1, when a fire on the launchpad killed three astronauts. Soon thereafter, Apollo 11 (“a giant leap for mankind”) and Apollo 12 were successful manned flights to the moon, but Apollo 13 was not. In the movie “Apollo 13,” actor Ed Harris, playing a flight director charged with bringing three astronauts safely home after serious damage to their spacecraft, uttered the now famous line (invented for the movie), “Failure is not an option.” But unfortunately, particularly in space technology, it is.
Speaking of technological risk, Elon Musk, chief executive officer and chief technological officer of SpaceX, said, "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." When you are innovating, doing something that has never been done before, there is always significant risk of failure. It is especially unfortunate when failures cost lives, but the failure of Virgin Galactic’s space ship was a test flight, designed to make the eventual flight carrying passengers less likely to fail, and test pilots are well aware of the risks they are taking.
The recent experiences of Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences remind us that with the risks associated with technological frontiers, failure is unfortunately always an option. But success is also an option. At the frontier, success yields progress, and progress is impossible without risk. I recommend keeping the reservation for your flight into space.