Monthly Archives: January 2016

SpaceX’s Winning Formula

The remains of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage that launched the Jason 3 satellite for NASA. The rocket stage landed softly on a barge in three meter swells, but a problem with the locking system on one landing leg caused it to topple.

Here’s the reason why SpaceX is eating everyone else’s lunch in the launch business:

Improve. Test. Be willing to fail. Learn. Repeat.

In software development we have the concept of ‘failing fast’ – being prepared to try a new or different approach, but validating early whether or not it will work. You can see SpaceX do the same with the Falcon family of rockets. They built the best expendable launch vehicle they new how – and tried recovering it with parachutes. That didn’t work, so they tried using the rocket engines to slow it to a controlled descent. That nearly worked on the first attempt to perform a controlled landing on the ocean, but aerodynamic forces overwhelmed the rockets roll control thrusters and it spun too fast for the engine to fire for the final descent. So they added grid fins, and tried again, aiming for a barge. They nearly reached the barge, but the stage had run out of hydraulic working fluid for the grid fins before it landed, so the stage crashed. They tried again with more hydraulic fluid, but the stage hit the barge too hard and toppled. Today, they tried again, but a hardware issue with the locking mechanism on one of the landing legs meant another topple, despite what would otherwise have been an almost-dead-centre soft landing on the barge.

They will learn from this. They will fix whatever caused landing leg three to fail to lock, and they will try again on the very next launch, due to happen next month. This is what SpaceX does. The company is not afraid to take measured risks, and it’s not afraid to fail, so long as that failure will teach them something that will make their rocket better.

Oh, and they did all of the stuff above, while using those very same rockets to deliver payloads safely and successfully to orbit.

Pretty cool, huh?

Keep failing fast, SpaceX. Your failures are ultimately more successful than everyone else’s ‘perfect, nominal missions.’

Both might end in the destruction of the rocket today. But I’m confident that, in the next few years, SpaceX’s wont. Routinely. And the risk-averse competition will have a lot of catching up to do.