Congratulations are due to Elon Musk and his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for generating an amazingly cool explosion over Central Texas Friday morning when an experimental Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) self-destructed after a launch anomaly. This temporary setback involved no risk to humans and followed an impressive number of successful tests on the path to dramatically lowering space launch costs via the development of a reusable launch vehicle.
While NASA's space shuttle demonstrated that an orbital spacecraft can be reused, and at least two other commercial firms are developing exciting new vehicles that can be reflown, these systems dispose of nearly all of the hardware required to put them into space in the first place. By accepting the long-standing assumption of a single-use launcher, they are locked into a cold war paradigm where every orbital launch is a $100 million event. Only SpaceX has been pushing to completely redefine the economics of space by returning the first and possible second stage assemblies and engines safely back to Earth. If perfected, such a system could reduce the cost of launching payloads or astronauts by an order of magnitude.
Testing a truly new rocket has always involved failure. In fact, the development of any complex and innovative product should feature an iterative development process. By definition such a process is "failure driven." As with learning to ski, if you're not falling down you're just not getting any better.
However, rocket failures are exciting and highly visible in a way that most other products are not. How many secretly awful prototypes of the iPhone did Steve Jobs privately dismiss as "crap" before his team delivered the beautiful world-shaking final product? There were dozens if not hundreds of silent "explosions" in Apple's hidden labs. Each time, Apple's talented engineers analyzed their disasters and returned with a better product, or sometimes not. The agony of this selection process was hidden from view as it is with most great development projects. Launching thousands of pounds of material with explosive fuels and oxidizers affords no such luxury of silence and SpaceX must work in public.
Risk-taking, failure and iterative development were key to the "Right Stuff" model that made America's early manned space programs exciting, generally safe and enormously successful. The beloved Mars exploration program at JPL suffered a string of dramatic failures in the 90s before entering the current golden age of robotic exploration. While hindsight tells us how they might have been avoided, each disappointment was viewed as a lesson learned and the programs moved forward to ever-greater achievements.
So, hats off to the team at SpaceX for taking big chances, something that has been missing from the orbital launch market and the government manned space program for years. I wish them many spectacular, and safe, failures in the years to come. Though not directly related to their manned flight program, NASA would be wise to place this event on the positive side of the ledger as they evaluate funding for the latest round of their Commercial Crew program.
Greg Autry teaches technology entrepreneurship at The Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. He recently co-authored a report for the FAA Offices of Commercial Space Transportation entitled An Analysis of the Competitive Advantage of the United States of America in Commercial Human Orbital Spaceflight Markets. You can find him on Facebook.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly claimed the experiment happened on a Saturday morning when it actually took place on a Friday.