By Garrett C. Hill, CEO, X2nSat, Inc.
Accidents, crashes, and explosions! As our planned tenancy at Spaceport America in New Mexico draws near, I am acutely aware of the media drama and public concern elicited from recent spacecraft launch failures. You’ve likely heard about Virgin Galactic’s fatal spaceship accident last year, and our other fellow Spaceport America tenant SpaceX’s recent failure to reach the International Space Station with supplies and goodies last month. And there was that Orbital ATK explosion that occurred in October 2014.
As members of the satellite communications industry, we have a keen interest in what happens up there in space. And we also have a keen interest in the politics of space innovation down here on Earth.
My question is two-fold: Why are people who are NOT in the space industry so critical and so worried about these types of “setbacks”? And why are people who are part of the space industry not worried about them, from a big-picture perspective?
To presumptuously answer myself – I think it’s because the scientists, visionaries and engineers intimately connected to an incredibly high-tech, complex and risky arena such as space exploration know and accept that risk is an inherent part of ultimate success. For the past 20 years and even further back, we can look at the space industry and see periods where there have been waves of failures followed by waves of success. This is the rhythm of bringing new technologies to market.
There was a time – only a few generations ago – when people who resolved to “fly in the sky like a bird” were considered to be kooks and crazies. Many inventors and early pilots of gliders and other flying contraptions died in the pursuit of their “crazy” ideas. Thanks to them, I’ll be experiencing the convenience of hopping on an airplane in San Francisco in the morning and will arrive on the East Coast in just a few hours. Apparently, if I rode that distance on horseback, it would take about seven months.
There are so many quotes about risk-taking – usually from motivational speakers and business consultants – that they’ve likely become a bit cliché, maybe devoid of meaning. But I invite you to take some of these quotes very seriously. For I believe that their sentiments reveal the core of all innovation and success throughout human history.
To throw a few at you: American author and professor John A. Shedd once said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Mario Andretti said, “If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.” And everyone remembers learning in history class about FDR’s famously emphatic plea to a Depression-weary American public in 1933: “The only thing to fear is fear itself!”
The facts and figures in this humble statement by basketball legend Michael Jordan provide the best analogy to the way I view risk and its value: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
As a society, we need to respectfully mourn the financial losses, physical injuries or even deaths that may happen when a rocket ship explodes, or when things don’t go as planned. It’s part of the process, and those amazing individuals who have been willing to sacrifice their own lives through the centuries are the reason we live in such an incredible world today. We need to celebrate the unique people who follow their passions to take on informed risks.
The Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico just published an article today (we’re up on our New Mexico media since we decided to join the Spaceport America family) that mirrors my thinking exactly. Here’s an excerpt: “Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire behind the aspiring Virgin Galactic spaceline, recently shared his 91-year-old mother’s motto on social media: ‘Just keep going,’ he tweeted.”
It was recently determined that Virgin Galactic’s 2014 accident was not due to any mechanical or other malfunctions, but user error on the part of the pilot who was unfortunately killed. The purpose of that particular flight was to identify any problems with the process. That’s the definition of a test.
Let’s embrace the bravery of pilots such as Michael Alsbury, from whose sacrifice we have learned something, and applaud those who are willing to sacrifice in exchange for the creation of a new and better world.
Embracing risk in an intelligent and beneficial way that leads to innovation takes a unique combination of moxie, humility, vision, drive and ambition. Each person has his or her own threshold for how much they’re willing to risk to make something new happen in this world, our out of this world, as it may be. What we accomplish when we succeed at deploying a new technology is worth the occasional failure.
Like Grandma Branson says, we need to “just keep going.”
TOP PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Famous first flight of the Wright Brothers. Credit: Public domain via Wikipedia.
INSET PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrates 73 seconds after its 1986 launch, due to hot gases escaping through a damaged seal in an SRB, leading to structural failure of the external tank. The accident resulted in the death of all seven crew members. Credit: Public domain via NASA.