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“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.Published in