Finding Out How Far We Can Go

12/01/2014 15:01


With snow building in the Rockies, I'm tuning up my skis and looking forward to a few impromptu downhill races. I've never won one of those by throttling back, schussing conservatively within my limits, or being afraid to leave the Earth and catch a little air.

Risk taking has been frequently on my mind lately as both the highs and lows of pushing the space frontier have been much in the news. Nobody ever won a race, introduced a new product, fielded a new technology, built a better customer experience or revolutionized the state-of-the art without taking a risk. Yet, we have reached a point where much of society in the developed world expects to be able to live a risk free existence. The causes of this societal timidity can be debated: Is it fear-based because of our litigiousness? Have sophisticated insurance and assurance industries marketed so well to us that we believe all risk can be eliminated from life? Have government "security net" programs become so pervasive that we believe no one, and no thing, can ever be allowed to fail? Or has the sense of entitlement that defines the Baby Boom generation altered our reality in a way that the "greatest generation," those heroes of duty, honor and courage, would disdain?
As I compose this View, the very first Orion mission -- dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 -- is on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The team is targeting Dec. 4 for the first flight of a new U.S.-built human rated space launch system since John Young and Bob Crippen flew Space Shuttle Columbia into orbit on April 12, 1981. It will be the first time that a spacecraft built for humans has left low Earth orbit since Dec. 7, 1972, when Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrison Schmidt became the last men to launch to the Moon on Apollo 17.
The sole purpose of EFT-1 is to buy down the risk of developing the Orion system. That means, simply, test early, test often, shake the hell out of the system so you fully understand it before you start flying. Do something risky now. Use what you learn to make things less risky later. If things go well, the flight goes according to plan, and we collect thousands of bits of data to help make Orion better. If things go less well, the flight doesn't perform perfectly, and we still collect thousands of bits of data to help make Orion better. And if things go completely sideways, we still collect valuable data that helps make Orion better.
This is patently obvious to those of us in the space business. There is no such thing as a risk free development. If you want "risk free" development, you test and simulate forever, and you fly nothing. You dare nothing, and become what Teddy Roosevelt called "those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
I bring this up because so many of the news media who will cover the Orion launch have grown up in a society that believes in the no risk scenario, and cannot wait to pounce upon the corpse of even the tiniest glitch that might be part of the test. This attitude on the part of many in media became painfully obvious recently with the lamentations and protestations that followed the failure of an Antares launch, and a flight test accident in the SpaceShipTwo program. These are both new vehicles. We are very, very far from fully understanding either one, and SS2, of course, was still very much an experimental vehicle -- which, by definition, means a spacecraft that has not yet been fully proven in flight.
Even the Rosetta program, one of the most ambitious and risky deep space projects in memory, was being decried a failure by many in the news media when the fate of the Philae lander was momentarily unclear -- despite 100 percent mission success up to that point, and despite the well established engineering knowledge that, even with the very best of performance, the mathematical likelihood of successfully landing Philae on the target comet was no better than 50-50. The magnitude of ESA's accomplishment was almost lost to an inexpert, non-technical, completely unrealistic media standard of perfection.
Part of the problem, of course, is the collapse of the traditional business model for news and the near extinction of functioning newsrooms with subject matter experts on staff with any semblance of space experience or technical or scientific competence. In this regard, the internet has not been our friend. Not only is it no longer required that you know a little something about science and engineering before you start writing and filing stories about the space program, today it is not even required that you master the fundamentals of journalism. Any idiot with a computer can become a blogger and develop an online following, regardless of their lack of actual knowledge and training. Thus, we get lamentations when we should get news.
In fairness, this is, fortunately, not true of a passionate few who still cover our industry with objectivity, journalistic know-how and a solid knowledge base: Frank Morring from Aviation Week, Marcia Dunn from Associated Press, Irene Klotz of Reuters, freelancer Miles O'Brien (himself a victim of the "dumbing down" of CNN), Andy Pasztor from The Wall Street Journal, Jim Oberg and pretty much anybody still reporting for Space News. And there are some websites/blogs that are trying hard, like AmericaSpace. (I know I've missed some, and I apologize in advance. If you'd like to nominate someone to join this list of outstanding journalists, drop an email to and we'll publish the names, and our thanks, in our January edition.)
For the most part, however, when a spacecraft fails or test goes awry, the reporter or blogger calling the Space Foundation for comment has never written a story about space in his or her life.  
Therein lies the challenge, and the opportunity: to tackle the issue of risk head on; to explain its place in the exploration and development of space; and to place it in context. The only way I know to do this is one person at a time, one conversation at a time.
So, ahead of EFT-1, I'd like to encourage everyone in our industry to use this mission, and every mission, as an opportunity to talk about the glorious importance and value of risk taking. How there is no such thing as a guaranteed space mission -- ever, ever, ever. How we learn from every single thing we do, and if we stop learning, we are done. That it is the absolute guts and daring of this industry that makes it so special, so glorious, and draws us to it; how our educated and informed risk taking is what makes our commitment to explore not only all about what is best in humanity, but helps us define what it is to be human -- to strive, to seek, to stumble, to fall, and to get back up, time and again and never quit. Ever.  
Don't take my word for it. Here are some bona fide famous people you can quote on the subject:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -- Mark Twain
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. -- Pablo Picasso
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. -- Helen Keller
People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. -- Peter F. Drucker
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. -- T.S. Eliot
The View From Here is that humanity's exploration and development of space is all about finding out how far we can go. We do that one launch vehicle, one spacecraft, one mission at a time. Risk always rides with us, we know it, and we embrace it.

Elliot Holokauahi Pulham Chief Executive Officer