It has been a tough sledding for rocket boys recently. Just look at what has not worked right: a Chinese Long March 2C rocket failed on August 18. Russia lost two last month. a workhorse Proton upper stage failed to put a communications satellite into the proper orbit, and the most launched rocket in history, the Soyuz launch vehicle, suffered a third stage engine failure which resulted in the cargo intended for the ISS scattered all across northeastern Russia. Here at home, the Blue Origin commercial spacecraft development organization had a test go awry when their vehicle lost control during supersonic flight. And last but not least, SpaceX reported an incident at engine shutdown during a launch several months ago. Not that the list wouldn’t be longer if we look a little further back in time; but this is lengthy enough to make the point.
Does this mean that these organizations are incompetent or about to fail? Or does it mean that we should give up trying to travel into space? Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. Rocketry is a difficult subject; and failures – although we try our best to prevent them – have the salubrious effect of teaching more lessons in a short time than can be learned in a long time from a string of many successes. In fact, success has a funny way of playing on human nature and breed unwarranted confidence, maybe even arrogance. ‘Pride goeth before destruction’ to quote a proverb, and a long string of successes generally over-stimulates pride.
One of the hallmarks of a successful organization is being a learning organization. Everyone has new lessons to learn. In the high risk, high energy, low margin endeavor that is spaceflight, no matter how hard you try, little things are going to go wrong. What you hope is to learn the lesson before the little things grow into big things.
So in all the incidents last month, the affected organization will learn the technical and organizational lessons which come from the failure, and will thus insure future success. Or if they don’t learn, natural selection will take them out of the gene pool in short order.
When I was a young flight controller at NASA, my bosses taught me to immediately and publicly confess my shortcomings and errors. This was seen as the only way to improve. If anyone hid a mistake, they were quickly shown the door. Mistakes can happen, especially with young and inexperienced personnel. Recognizing and admitting a mistake, then learning from that mistake – which includes taking advice from those who have been down the path before you – is the key. I have a strong memory from one of my early bosses who advised that after making a mistake, you should find the most senior manager in the area and immediately and in great detail admit your mistake in all its gory detail and quickly explain how you are never ever again going to let that mistake happen. I had more than one occasion to practice this advice.
There is truly something to be said for transparency. Putting an accident investigation report on public display allows others to learn from your mistakes and makes the entire industry better and safer. Involving others in the dissection of a failure leads to a richer, deeper, and more fruitful set of corrective actions. All of this goes to preventing accidents in the future.
When someone keeps a mistake hidden, nobody learns from it; nobody recognizes that the activity is hazardous; and more accidents will occur. Secrecy, whether it is in the name of national security or corporate stability, has a price. Nervous investors may not bear up well listening to a rocket failure report, but this enterprise is not for the faint of heart.
Besides, these things always get out. You cannot hide them forever, and eventually the story gets publicized. Then you have lost credibility and your reputation for integrity is in tatters, all that in addition to the real technical problem that has most likely gone unsolved because it was hidden under a bushel basket.
Nope, honest is the best policy in the rocket business; transparency will bring help and advice that you would not have gotten by holding a secret close.
Good luck to all those who put their hearts and sweat into building machines to leave the planet. I know it is a hard business. But the rewards for ultimate success make it all worthwhile.