Quote of the Day: Failure

 

“Failure is not an option.” — Attributed to but never said by Gene Kranz

Sounds inspirational, doesn’t it? In reality, it is a trap. The only way to avoid failure is not to try.

We saw an example of ignoring that aphorism on display today, with the second launch of SpaceX’s Starship rocket. Elon Musk launched it expecting failures. The first launch had significant problems. This launch was more successful, but still had failures. The first stage exploded after separation. If everything had gone right, it would have soft-landed in the Gulf. There was a loss of communication with the second stage well before its scheduled reentry into the Pacific.

Do those failures mean the launch was successful? No. Its primary goal was to demonstrate a successful staging of the first and second stages. That happened successfully. Musk was willing to risk — and experience — failures in pursuit of that goal.

What Kranz really said was in answer to a question asked by the  the Apollo 13 scriptwriters: “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” His answer was, “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.”  Which has a different meaning entirely. You look at what you can do with the resources you have and pursue them. There is no sense in considering failure, because it does not lead to a solution. It is not “failure is not an option. It is “failure is not an option to consider.” It is always an option, just not one worth wasting time on.

Unfortunately, in my experience since the movie came out, NASA has adopted the movie aphorism as its motto. They have become risk-averse, almost comically so in some instances. They used to blow up rockets on a regular basis back in the 1960s to get past the learning curve. Just like Musk regularly blew up rockets to get Dragon and Falcon to their current levels of reliability and why he is willing to risk blowing up rockets to make Starship reliable.

NASA’s fear of failure — any failure — is one reason why they’re years behind on its manned return to the Moon and why the SLS has yet to mount a manned mission. Meanwhile, SpaceX, which began from a standing start in the oughts is now accelerating past NASA regarding manned launch systems. 

Me? I don’t care who gets it done, as long as we get back into space.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Seawriter: There is no sense in considering failure, because it does not lead to a solution. It is not “failure is not an option. It is “failure is not an option to consider.” It is always an option, just not one worth wasting time on. 

    Good distinction. I wonder if it also applies to the future of our Republic.  

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Amen

    • #2
  3. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    I have a 90 year old patient who is an actual rocket scientist.  He designed and built missile systems for the military from the 1950’s on.  He worked mostly in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. 

    He said whenever the Russians did something provocative, his boss would call him and tell him to shoot some rockets off.

    “Ummm…  I don’t really have anything right now.”

    “No problem.  Whatever.  Just shoot something off – something big.”

    “Sure.  But, see … I don’t have anything that works.”

    “No problem.  It’s fine if it blows up.  As long as it blows up big.  Really big.  Big enough to be noticed.”

     My patient says he launched lots and lots of half baked and very expensive projects straight into the Pacific Ocean.

    • #3
  4. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    I should write a post about him.  Amazing guy.  He doesn’t know who his Dad was.  His Mom and her siblings were sharecroppers in Louisiana.  He grew up sleeping on the floor of a sharecropper’s cabin with his siblings.  He’s the only one in his family to go to college, and he ends up being a leading rocket scientist in the world’s greatest military.  Amazing.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Real failure would have been if they didn’t get any telemetry out of the flight. They’ve probably got all kinds of data to comb through.

    Testing is like that.

    • #5
  6. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Rand Simberg has a good book, Safe is not an Option, on the perils of safety culture.  It’s a good book

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Rand Simberg has a good book, Safe is not an Option, on the perils of safety culture. It’s a good book

    My review of it on Ricochet back in 2014.

    Simberg’s take on it, also on Ricochet.

    • #7
  8. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Seawriter: [NASA has] become risk-averse, almost comically so in some instances.

    Much like the military, they have discovered that public embarrassment leads to congressional ‘inquiries’ and micromanagement through program funding. 

    Musk has considerable more control over his budget. 

    • #8
  9. Dan Campbell Member
    Dan Campbell
    @DanCampbell

    There’s a whole branch of engineering dedicated to “test to failure.”  They clamp a piece into a machine so they can squeeze, pull, twist, heat, freeze, etc. until the piece breaks.  Then they analyze how much force it took to break, how it broke, why it broke, and think about how it can be made better so it will take more force to break the new piece.  it’s fascinating stuff.

    • #9
  10. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    When handled right, failure is a great teacher. Which might well mean that it is not failure if it leads to improvement. growth and later achievements. It then merely becomes a necessary step in the path to those achievements. Mental toughness is needed for that but rarely is anything great accomplished without struggle.

    The stories of those struggles are also our teachers.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    I have a 90 year old patient

     

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    I should write a post about him. Amazing guy. He doesn’t know who his Dad was. His Mom and her siblings were sharecroppers in Louisiana. He grew up sleeping on the floor of a sharecropper’s cabin with his siblings. He’s the only one in his family to go to college, and he ends up being a leading rocket scientist in the world’s greatest military. Amazing.

     

    If you need to gather more information from him before writing that, or maybe a book about him, sounds like you should get started asap!

    • #11
  12. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):

    There’s a whole branch of engineering dedicated to “test to failure.” They clamp a piece into a machine so they can squeeze, pull, twist, heat, freeze, etc. until the piece breaks. Then they analyze how much force it took to break, how it broke, why it broke, and think about how it can be made better so it will take more force to break the new piece. it’s fascinating stuff.

    comic-and-hobbes-funny-Calvin-s-dad-explains-bridge-weight-limits

    • #12
  13. davenr321 Coolidge
    davenr321
    @davenr321

    TBA (View Comment):

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):

    There’s a whole branch of engineering dedicated to “test to failure.” They clamp a piece into a machine so they can squeeze, pull, twist, heat, freeze, etc. until the piece breaks. Then they analyze how much force it took to break, how it broke, why it broke, and think about how it can be made better so it will take more force to break the new piece. it’s fascinating stuff.

    comic-and-hobbes-funny-Calvin-s-dad-explains-bridge-weight-limits

    Calvin’s Dad is a patent attorney. Likely an engineer with  JD. He is historically correct in his answer… build physical models, test, rebuild, determine HS-20 or. 93 and we’re done. I am sure that the argument between Calvin’s Dad and Calvin’s Mom would have taken up several panels.

    The issue of true failure is a failure on the part of “Leadership” to act properly when risks have been ascertained. The biggest risk is reputation. Your project might fail in action, but as Seawriter brilliantly sums it up, failure is not trying. And, as you equally brilliant commenters (like myself 😊) have reiterated, not learning from those failures, is actual failure.

     

    • #13
  14. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    davenr321 (View Comment):
    Calvin’s Dad is a patent attorney. Likely an engineer with  JD. He is historically correct in his answer… build physical models, test, rebuild, determine HS-20 or. 93 and we’re done. 

    Today we have that kind of thing down so well we use computer models. Moreover we have it down so well, that if the bridge collapses under the design load that is an indication the bridge was built incorrectly. A clue for the forensic engineers. (That’s a field, too.) 

    • #14
  15. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    The only way to guarantee failure is to  never  try. 

    • #15
  16. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    OkieSailor (View Comment):

    The only way to guarantee failure is to never try.

    There’s probably a term for it, offhand I’m not sure what it is, but if you never go skydiving, that doesn’t mean you failed at skydiving.  If you fail at skydiving you’re probably dead.

    • #16
  17. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OkieSailor (View Comment):

    The only way to guarantee failure is to never try.

    There’s probably a term for it, offhand I’m not sure what it is, but if you never go skydiving, that doesn’t mean you failed at skydiving. If you fail at skydiving you’re probably dead.

    Well I haven’t failed at skydiving but I have failed to skydive ;>)

    edited because of stupid phone!!

    • #17
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