"What SpaceX ultimately needs to get crews into orbit is a better second stage engine."
No, the Merlin engine is just fine. The only thing stopping them from putting crew on Dragon right now is the lack of a launch escape system, which is a NASA requirement.
"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"
At the risk of being pedantic, SpaceX is not the only commercial space company, and its vehicle didn't actually returned to Earth in three pieces -- two stages, one capsule. (Probably more than that, actually, since the rocket stages normally break up on reentry.)
This is off topic, but relevant for space weenies like me: The moon reaches perigee on Saturday night, coincidentally when full. According to Smithsonianmag.com, "As one of the most spectacular supermoons in years, the moon will appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than when it is on the far side of its orbit." Don't forget to look up Saturday night:
When someone asks you whether failure or success teaches us more, the answer they obviously WANT to hear is "failure."
In a panel discussion, is it not more interesting if the panelists don't each parrot the other? Honestly, I have to believe this was more of a case of semantics, and making yourself noticed among the other panelists, rather than anything with deep philosophical significance.
If someone had asked me, I would have said that failure, without subsequent success, teaches us very little. You need success before you can "learn" any lesson, or the only thing you'll have learned is that "it can't be done."
So, what's more important? I suppose it depends on whether you want to get anything accomplished!
Musk and SpaceX have several things going for them. One is that the engine cluster on its Falcon 9 booster have already undergone significant testing. What SpaceX ultimately needs to get crews into orbit is a better second stage engine. Homer Hickam of "October Sky" fame tells me that an upgrade to the trusted Apollo J2 second stage engine, the J2X, could be used by SpaceX for manned flights. The upcoming cargo mission to the space station will tell us much about whether SpaceX has its act together.
I understand and agree with Mr. Musk's statement that successes are useful to help the learning process. Successes do show one that a good outcome is possible and the process flow is in the right area. For a firm in the early stages of product or service development, the sucesses are as important as the failures for sources of learning.
When maturing the product or service, the failures are often key feedback to improve the performance and quality required of the system.
SpaceX is developing products and services with more verification and validation tools and more history (i.e. records of successes and failures to study) in the same industry than ever before. Will that be enough to ensure contractual success without any occupational fatalities or injuries? I can't say I'd bet the farm yet. However, I wish Mr. Musk and SpaceX all the best, for I believe that it is through endeavors like his current one, relatively open to review, that space exploration and commecialization will effectively move forward.
Since this was posted SpaceX and NASA have announced another delay in launching SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. The company says it is still testing and verifying spacecraft software. Given the column above, this is a good indication that SpaceX executives understand the risks associated with this mission. According to reports, the problem SpaceX engineers are grappling with involves potential interference with space station systems caused by Dragon spacecraft electronics. We're continuing to track this.