SpaceX, The Everyday Astronaut, and the Joy of Failure
One of the things I love about our new age of space exploration is the vigor with which those who are embarking on that exploration – and those who follow it – embrace failure. If outward appearances are to be believed (and I think they can be) SpaceX is an organization that seems to have developed a comfort with failure that rivals the comfort Cleveland Browns fans have that their team will never win a Super Bowl. That said, SpaceX doesn’t embrace failure for failure’s sake – one failure provides a line of data points in a breadcrumb trail of data points that leads to an ultimate success (unlike the Browns).
Earlier today, I watched the launch of SpaceX’s SN9, a prototype vehicle trying to do a maneuver no spacecraft has ever successfully completed, via a livestream from Everyday Astronaut’s YouTube channel. Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut himself, has an infectious enthusiasm for all that is space related. He is exceptionally knowledgeable for somebody who, as he describes himself, “dropped out of college and has no technical background or degree.” And that’s what makes him so interesting to me – his biography in some way mirrors the scrappy nature of SpaceX itself. He has a passion, as those at SpaceX do, and, like SpaceX, he pursues it with an intensity that steamrolls those who say, “You shouldn’t be doing that.” How awesome that we live in an age where SpaceX can do what it does and folks like Tim can do what they do?
Indeed, the best part of watching the launch and the concluding fireball upon "landing" was Tim’s reaction to it. I’ve provided a video of that reaction here (I’m sorry about the quality; I was filming my computer screen with my phone – but the point is made, I think). I was struck by how his reaction adds to the mystique of SpaceX, of space travel, and of experimentation in the service of daring adventure. What kid watching this wouldn’t want to be a part of the adventure he helps educate others about? What kid wouldn’t see the value of making a mistake and learning from it? What kid wouldn’t giggle with glee, like Tim, at the spectacular nature of the failure?
Source: Everyday Astronaut Youtube channel
The other thing that made the moment awesome? The fact that SN10 was sitting in the open, right next to where SN9 was attempting to land. I, like many others, was struck by the insanity of it. What if SN9 took out SN10 during the test? I’m all for bravado, but all I kept thinking was this is insane! As my father noted, it’s as if Elon Musk wants to be sure people land on Mars while he’s still alive. There is no time to waste. So we don’t let the risk of losing two test vehicles get in our way.
It was as if SN10 was a giant middle finger poking through the Earth’s crust in Boca Chica, directed squarely at the gods of fate. “You’ve dealt with NASA in the past,” I imagine SN10 saying to those gods, “they’d never risk one vehicle while testing another. There’s a new sheriff in town now. I dare you to f*** with my outrageous experiment!” The gods of fate may have prevailed once again, but only partially; while SN9 was lost, SN10 appeared to be unharmed. But do any of us think that the gods of fate will continue to prevail? I don’t. That doesn’t mean there won’t be losses. And in a couple of week stretch where we remember losses that took the lives of U.S. astronauts, we shouldn’t get too cocky. More people will lose their lives as humankind bumps up against the limits of what’s possible. But The Everyday Astronaut and SpaceX help put the joy back into complex and radical engineering in an effort to do truly bold things. And that, my friends, is awesome.
Patrick Mullane is the author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s, a humorous coming-of-age memoir. Order signed copies on this website or at Amazon here.