We live in a sad age of skin deep media, where reporters sensationalize headlines and most people barely read more than the first 2 lines of an article. Given that, I’d like to clarify something I think every major news outlet has gotten wrong. When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded yesterday morning (PST), it wasn’t really a failure as everyone was so ready to report. Instead, it was an enormously important learning opportunity for the company and its engineers.
Every company has an “O-Ring” (a la Challenger, 1986) moment: when you operate in new conditions and something goes catastrophically wrong. You hope those “anomalies” don’t cost human lives, or endanger hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts, but when you’re working on the cutting edge of technology, you can’t always predict these things. So you do research, you experiment, and you try, try again.
In the world of R&D, the most costly thing that can happen isn’t a negative result. It’s no result. If you can’t learn anything, you can’t improve anything. As Astro Teller (Google’s Captain of Moonshots) summarized it: Revolutionary products are not made through conservative iterations where flaws may not materialize until after you’ve invested large sums of money. Rather, you should seek to fail fast so that you can learn sooner. The long-term viability of reusable rockets isn’t going to be learned by studies and modeling. You have to JFDI. Just ****ing Do It.
In blowing up the very last Falcon 9 (v1.1) rocket, SpaceX learned that fog and ambient humidity can have a substantial impact on the function of mechanical systems. If icing in the locking mechanism did cause a landing leg to buckle, it’s a good thing it’s coming to the attention of engineers now. Falcon 9 v1.2’s in the future will be using super-cryogenically densified propellant. The fuel tanks and structures of future rockets will be colder than usual and even more susceptible to icing issues, especially in the coming months once Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB start moving towards spring and summer temperatures.
In short: SpaceX could not have asked for a less important mission on which to blow up it’s booster. These setbacks are absolutely necessary steps towards developing a robust, reusable rocket launch system. Lay off the sensationalism, mainstream media. Kthx.