I’ve been having some interesting conversations this week with readers of Space Safety Magazine, debating the balance between what we might call dispassionate technical evaluation and media sensationalism. It is a subject that crops up with some regularity: the catalyst this time was the flight test of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser.
We published an article, courtesy of our media partner The Spaceflight Group, with the admittedly somewhat flashy title “Dream Chaser’s First Free Flight Ends in Failure.” Factually speaking, it did end in a failure, although there is no question matters could have been worse: the vehicle was not severely damaged, no people were injured, no property was destroyed. Instead, quite a bit of useful information was gleaned and the vehicle will even be usable for the next scheduled test.
So, did Space Safety Magazine overstep the bounds of technical credibility by highlighting the failure above the successes of this mission? Our mission as a publication is to highlight elements relating to space safety, whether in the realm of engineering, medicine, science, or law. Our standards for content are high – but in this particular area, it can sometimes be easy to be mistaken for crash junkies, always looking for the latest disaster to exploit. We do devote goodly portions of our publication to discussing accidents and failures, but not to revel gleefully in others’ misfortunes. Let’s explore the value to be had from underscoring failures.
The Purpose of Flight Tests
Jeff Foust quoted Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides at the Science Writers 2013 conference on November 3 as saying: “We’re doing flight tests, and things will go wrong. The point of flight tests is to figure out where things go wrong.” I can readily agree with the second half of that statement. The point of flight tests is to learn, to strengthen your design so that the real mission can go off without a hitch. But that does not mean we should accept and expect “things to go wrong” in such tests. We should expect and plan for things to go right. Trial and error is no substitute for careful engineering and meticulous design. We should not expect test flights to encounter technical difficulties. If and when such difficulties occur, of course we should and will learn from them; but let’s not allow ourselves to adopt an attitude of acceptance and resignation. We should be surprised when something goes wrong in a flight test. We should pay attention to the problem, learn from it, and make certain it doesn’t happen again.
Dream Chaser’s flight encountered a problem. It was a moderately severe failure that, through a combination of good planning and good luck, had a minimal severity impact. We should learn from such events; we should not come to accept them as inevitable.
So yes, you will find Space Safety Magazine harping on “failures” and highlighting what has gone wrong more than what has gone right. We think it’s important to pay attention. Because as soon as “it’s only a flight test” becomes a common refrain, we’ve started down the slippery slope to accepting mission failure. That’s a slope I, for one, have no wish to visit.
Image caption: Flight testing by Steve Jurvetson