SpaceX reaches orbit!

Monday, September 29, 2008

I've been a huge fan of SpaceX and their efforts to develop a privately funded launch system since they started six years ago. After three failed attempts over the past few years, yesterday they launched a perfect flight into orbit.

Elon Musk and his crew at SpaceX earned this glory through sheer brilliance and unrelenting determination. Come what may, these guys are going to succeed. Their first attempt a few years back ended when a corroded nut caused a fuel leak and fire shortly after launch. They responded by improving their quality control and onboard error detection systems to incredible levels. Flight 2 failed to reach orbit after fuel sloshing in the upper stage caused the engine to run dry. They added baffles to the fuel tank. Flight 3 included the new Merlin 1C engine, which unfortunately had a small thrust transient that caused a stage separation problem. Changing one line of code in the flight control software was all it took to correct this one.

Getting into space is astonishingly difficult. The physics are unforgiving; everything has to work right. The people at SpaceX are arguably the smartest people in the industry, and they're standing on the shoulders of several generations of rocket scientists, and still it took four tries to reach orbit.

I love this exchange from a recent interview with Elon Musk:

Interviewer: SpaceX has launched Falcon 1 three times, but has never reached orbit. I understand you are confident you will soon succeed, but I wonder what gives you that confidence? Rocket science, after all, is very hard.

Elon Musk: It is very hard indeed. There is a reason there are ideomatic expressions about the difficulty of rockets. This is something that is very important to do, so confidence or the lack thereof is not a consideration. It simply must be done.

I find a lot of wisdom when combining that quote with another one from Musk:
Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.
We all have hard things that are very important to do. We need to try a lot of crazy things, knowing any individual approach may not pan out. But as for achieving the ultimate goal, failure is never an option.

I guess it's no secret that Elon Musk is one of my personal heroes. When I see what he's doing, I'm inspired to forget about anything standing in my way, to charge ahead and make things happen.

If you have any interest at all in spaceflight, you've got to check out the SpaceX web site. Watch their videos and read about their amazing rocket technology. Falcon 1 is only the beginning. Over the next few years, these guys are going to be launching huge satellites and even astronauts into earth orbit on a regular basis. Their ultimate goal is the colonization of Mars, and my money says they're going to nail that one too.


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