Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly. – Robert F. Kennedy
Yes, the man who said this is Bobby Kennedy, a man disliked by the right and who should be distrusted by the left. (Robert Kennedy worked for Joe McCarthy and at the time apparently liked the work.) But when someone is right about something, pay attention, perhaps especially if you dislike the person.
On Thursday Israel attempted to land a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface. They failed. Barely. They lost control of the craft during the final phase of its descent. But a near-failure in the harsh calculus of space is still a total failure.
They dared to fail greatly. They failed, but they came close. There will be a next time, and with the lessons of this failure, their next dare to fail greatly may be rewarded with success. Probably will.
Contrast that attitude with NASA’s. Their current slogan is “Failure is not an option.” That is a fine goal when you have three men heading to the Moon in a crippled spacecraft and need to get them safely back to Earth. It is a lousy goal for an organization whose mission is to explore space and push the limits of achievement. Yet since the mid-1980s that has been NASA’s prime directive. “Failure is not an option.”
There is only one way to guarantee you do not fail. Do not try. Yet between 1988 when Shuttle flights resumed and 2011, when the last Shuttle mission flew, that is what NASA was doing. Not trying. Finding ways to avoid risky missions to eliminate the chance of failure. I was there, working on the Shuttle program through most of that period.
They failed anyway. Which left them yet less willing to dare. Today they are content to hop rides to the ISS aboard Russian boosters while finding justification for not pushing development and testing of an American manned launch system. And the system they are developing uses the very latest concepts from the 1970s. It should be ready by 2025. Or maybe 2030. Possibly 2040. (Yeah, I know. They plan a manned flight Real Soon Now. Just like it was going to be Real Soon Now for the last five years.)
You can only push limits by daring to fail greatly. Which is what Beresheet was about. Which is what SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, Bigelow, and Virgin Galactic are about. You can argue some of them are not serious. Or not good ideas. Or maybe even crazy. But they are in the arena.
NASA? Its place, at least the place of its leaders, seems to be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. I hope that changes.