SpaceX's Useful Failure

Lost cargo.

Photographer: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

It was, in corporate parlance, a "non-nominal launch." Others more bluntly called it a "catastrophic failure." SpaceX's seventh mission to rendezvous with the International Space Station ended in flames above Cape Canaveral Sunday, a couple of minutes after liftoff.

Private Space Travel

The company's Falcon 9 rocket launched normally, soared toward the cosmos, then blasted into expensive little pieces over the Atlantic, taking with it a few thousand pounds of supplies and equipment.

The failure -- the third for a resupply mission in less than a year -- is a blow to the space station's scientific mission. It's yet another challenge to NASA's plans to let private companies handle such launches as it trains its sights deeper into space. And it's a setback to SpaceX’s ambitious plans to deploy reusable rockets.

The good news is that SpaceX still has a few years to perfect those rockets before they're scheduled to carry people into the cosmos. The space station still has months' worth of supplies to sustain its crew. And NASA's plan to let private companies handle more responsibilities in space remains sound as a matter of public policy.

The recent failures should be recognized as the cost of making progress in spaceflight. New rocket systems fail as often as they succeed. And the string of recent (and unrelated) accidents in supplying the space station -- Orbital Sciences lost a rocket in October, and a Russian mission failed in April -- convey important lessons of their own as the space program ramps up for more ambitious exploration. As Scott Kelly, an astronaut aboard the station, put it on Twitter after Sunday's accident: "Space is hard."

That this was the first failure in 19 launches for the Falcon 9 speaks to how much Elon Musk's SpaceX has already accomplished. Since the company started in 2002, it has delivered a propulsive jolt to the aerospace industry by striving to do things faster, cheaper and more inventively. It has spurred competitors to slash costs, broken a monopoly on national-security launches and even roused some sluggish peers to try building reusable rockets of their own. As Bloomberg's Ashlee Vance writes in his new biography of Musk, "SpaceX has become the free radical trying to upend everything about this industry."

Upending things can work wonders in the marketplace. In space, it can all too easily lead to tragedy. SpaceX is learning that lesson.

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