HAS seeing the triumphant reactions of SpaceX and NASA which followed the explosion, Saturday, November 18, of the giant Starship rocket, we can wonder what separates success from failure? Sometimes just the point of view. Americans are often attributed this ability to see the gl half full, which leads them to innovate more easily, without the fear of failing which sometimes paralyzes Europeans, led by the French.
For more than fifty years, in Silicon Valley, we have systematized this approach which consists of progressing through successive failures. All start-ups operate on this model. Not surprising, since the iterative method was theorized in computer science to develop algorithms that find the right answer by making mistakes.
This is exactly how Elon Musk does things with his companies, including SpaceX, the designer of Starship. “We develop, we steal, we break things and we go back to steal again”explains SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, William Gerstenmaier, in an interview with Bloomberg.
A method that also has its flaws
The advantage of this approach is that it allows for all kinds of daring. In April, Starship’s first flight, the largest rocket ever built in the world, capable of carrying 100 tons of goods and men into space, resulted in the destruction of the rocket after three minutes, when the first stage separated, but also by a completely destroyed firing point whose flames set fire to a neighboring forest. Good news ! We know what needs to be improved.
Seven months later, SpaceX completely modified the launch pad, flooding it with downpours of water at takeoff, and the separation system for the two stages. And it worked. The Starship module has reached the edge of space, at an altitude of 100 kilometers. But the two components of the rocket, the first stage and the module, which were supposed to return to Earth for reuse, disintegrated. A new opportunity for improvement.
Obviously, this method, also called “test and learn” (“test and learn”), has some flaws. It is expensive. A single launch is billed for more than $500 million (458 million euros). But NASA is generous and has budgeted nearly $10 billion to get men back to the Moon before the end of the decade. And then the practice can lead to excesses since it allows you to try everything, sometimes even outside of any legality, as experienced by Uber or Airbnb. The road to innovation is not a long, quiet river and disregards rules and precautionary principles.