Ever since I met Wayne Hale last Summer at the Augustine Commission hearings in Cocoa Beach, Florida, I have been a fan.

NSS Phoenix lists his blog among our favorite sites to visit for in depth statements about what is true in the extremely dangerous world of space exploration.

So what is it about STS-77 that so impressed Wayne Hale, his first mission as Lead Flight Director, in charge of the planning and development for the flight as well as the actual execution? It was, as he later learned to his own surprise, the possibility of failure:

Try something. Be bold, revolutionary, even game changing. Just don’t be surprised if you have to pick yourself up off the ground and dust off your pants from time to time. It’s the American way.

One experiment consisted of a small cylindrical sub satellite, which included a couple of permanent magnets. The entire experiment consisted of using those magnets to align the satellite with the earth’s magnetic field; a very passive way to provide attitude control for small satellites. The plan was to kick the satellite out, with a lot of wobble – clearly out of control, fly away for a day, come back, and observe how stable the satellite had become.

Well, the shuttle came back, and the wobble was a bit better. Another day, another dollar, and a bit less wobble. In the end, the experiment was judged a failure. Fail. But, we learned something. Science is a success whether the answer is yes or no.

Did I tell you that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous operations of any space flight? The crew got really good at those procedures.

Then next test was the Inflatable Antenna Experiment (IAE). Pop it into space, push the button and instantly you would have a huge antenna. It created a stable shape, but tumbled end over end, which could not be controlled. Further, the “lens” was fluttering, unable to “see” anything. Fail.

Did I mention that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous executed by any single space mission?

So kudos to Space-X today. They, like all of us, have had their share of failure. Which means they learned something. An inaugural flight by a two stage rocket that achieves an Earth orbit is remarkable. The Atlas missile in the 1950’s, waited until launch #13 to achieve its first completely successful flight.

Clearly failure leads to success.


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