WASHINGTON – A panel of entrepreneurs was asked during a recent technology panel whether they learned more from failure or success?
Two panelists were unequivocal, emphasizing that failure was the best teacher. The third, space entrepreneur, Tesla co-founder and PayPal originator Elon Musk, said he sees it differently. Success is the greatest teacher, asserted Musk, explaining that success allows the risk taker to “find the needle in the haystack.”
As head of the only commercial space company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, to send a spacecraft into orbit and return it to Earth in one piece, Musk can afford to be a bit cocky. The next challenge will be sending his Dragon spacecraft into orbit to dock with the International Space Station. The launch aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has been delayed several times, and the company said Wednesday (May 2) that a scheduled May 7 launch attempt has been scrubbed to allow NASA and SpaceX to continue testing and verifying spacecraft software.
The successful Elon Musk says failure is overrated.
Musk said his critics told him the chances for success with Tesla and SpaceX were “zero.” He puts SpaceX’s chances of success as high as 40 percent. That includes hauling cargo to the space station and eventually carrying astronauts into orbit. SpaceX also has contracts to launch satellites.
Musk argued that he likes his chances of succeeding if only because “there are no prior precedents for success in creating an orbital space company, really, or a new car company in the last 90 years.”
That may be true for a car company, but space is an entirely different matter.
The history of manned spaceflight argues against Musk’s assertion that success teaches us more than failure. The 1960s newsreels
showing a seemingly endless series of rocket explosions at Cape Canaveral underscore how much rocket scientists had to learn through testing before they could risk putting a human on top of what amounts to a controlled explosion. We would not have reached the moon if Wernher von Braun and his rocketeers in Huntsville, Alabama, hadn’t stress-tested their rockets until they failed.
It is at the critical point of failure where the engineering lessons are found.
Musk thinks otherwise. He will hopefully view the matter of testing differently when lives are on the line. As commercial space critic and curmudgeon John Pike
told us last fall, Musk “hasn’t blown up enough hardware” and SpaceX has been “plagued by random success.”
Testing until something fails, whether it’s a widget or a rocket, is the fastest way to succeed. Success can be found in the hard lessons of failure.
We would have liked to have asked Musk more about this, and put to him the fundamental question: What happens to the commercial space industry when someone is eventually killed? Such a question deserves a response from the likes of Musk, but he quickly ducked out of the panel session and exited the building by the nearest escalator.