On June 28th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket meant to deliver supplies to the International Space Station exploded en route. It was the third cargo resupply mission to fail within the past year. In October 28th, 2014, Orbital Sciences’ uncrewed Antares rocket, bound for the station with supplies, exploded shortly after takeoff, and on April 28th, a Russian Progress spacecraft, also stocked with food and hardware, stopped communicating after being launched into space and started spinning wildly out of control.
How we handle our technology’s failure defines us as much as the fact that we created the technology at all. When a commercial plane crashes — a thankfully rare occurrence these days — we don’t just stand idly by. A team of analysts quickly swoop in, determine the root cause of the plane’s demise, and then decide what precautions should be taken so that a similar accident doesn’t occur again. The general attitude for these scenarios is often the same: "We should have done better."
Because of course spaceflight is hard
But when technological failure occurs during spaceflight, the public’s attitude isn’t nearly as chastened. Yes, teams of engineers and researchers immediately analyze the problem in order to pinpoint the origin of the failure. And updates are almost always made so as to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future. But in the immediate postmortem of a lost rocket, a familiar excuse always seems to surface, pardoning the debacle: "Space is hard." We heard that following Orbital Sciences’ Antares explosion in October 28th, 2014, as well as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash on October 31st.
It’s time to stop saying that. Because of course spaceflight is hard. As President Kennedy said, it’s why we pursue it in the first place. No one in their right mind could possibly think shooting cargo and people into lower Earth orbit at over 21,000 miles per hour is a simple task. Our aerospace engineers are brilliant, and the fact that we have a small population of people consistently living in orbit around our planet is nothing short of a miracle.
But our species is characterized by our ability to make last year’s miracle seem like this year’s child’s play. Just over 50 years ago, color televisions were a novelty; now we’re working on fully immersive virtual reality. Smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone — we eradicated it with vaccination. We achieve the seemingly impossible and then move beyond that to accomplish the even more impossible — it’s what we do.
Except in spaceflight, where we always let ourselves off the hook. Saying "space is hard" gives us a pass for our mistakes, like an adult comforting a toddler after a nasty fall. It’s a way of patting ourselves on the back when things don’t go the way we want them. "It’s okay that you didn’t succeed; it was really hard." If we intend to be serious about space, we should say, "Yes, it was hard. Why didn’t you succeed?"
Saying "space is hard" gives us a pass for our mistakes
We need a significant attitude shift in how we think of spaceflight. Rocket science is no longer fringe or experimental. It is marching into the mainstream, and it should be held to the same high standards as other pervasive technological systems. Accidents in the field are not okay — they’re embarrassments. That’s not because we are incompetent. It’s because we can — and should — make rocket failures a thing of the past. Spaceflight is not a novelty; spaceflight mistakes should be.
Mistakes will never be eliminated, of course. They shouldn’t be routine — three resupply accidents in the last 12 months is frankly alarming —and they certainly shouldn’t be excused. "Space is hard" is an excuse. And it’s one we should stop using — because NASA has its sights set on Mars. That excuse won’t fly when human lives are on the line. If space is so hard that we cannot routinely send supplies to the ISS, how do we expect to get people to the Red Planet? What confidence can that possibly create in NASA’s ambitious programs for human spaceflight?
We’re not amateurs anymore. We’re not cheerleaders, either. If private space companies can’t get these basic resupply missions right, why should we trust them to do anything else?
International Space Station: A time lapse of Earth from the ISS