Monday, June 29, 2015

Perseverance: Steadfastness in Doing Something Despite Difficulty or Delay in Achieving Success

Yesterday, I witnessed my first rocket launch from a boat. I also witnessed my first rocket failure, along with the loss of many science payloads that were being shipped to the International Space Station. One of those projects, Meteor, the first project proposal that I reviewed when I started working at CASIS, has now been lost twice – during last October's Orbital rocket incident and again yesterday. Bad luck!

I've taken a day to measure how I feel about what I saw. It would have been different if there had been a naked-eye visible explosion with a giant boom, as there would certainly have been if this were a movie. But the way it happened – the rocket was there and then it disappeared – was so subtle that I missed the event entirely and didn't know that a loss had occurred until several minutes later when I regained internet connection. I had to consult my photos to confirm that I had indeed been looking at the sky around the time of the incident, though I'm not sure what my camera captured was actually the explosion and debris. Better trained eyes than mine can judge.

Rocket debris or cloud? I'm not sure. - June 28, 2015

I've seen video of one of the last rocket launch failures that the Space Coast experienced, a Delta II in 1997 that dramatically exploded and rained debris down on the land, causing brush fires. The last launch failures that this area has seen were in August 1998, a few weeks before I began taking high school physics living outside of Philadelphia. Even Space Shuttle Columbia's landing wasn't an incident for us in Florida to witness, but to miss. Aside from the videos I've seen, I don't know what it means to lose a rocket during launch.

The day was picture-perfect. Friends Ryan and Jen offered to give me a ride on their sailboat to see the launch from Banana River, the lagoon that lies next to Cape Canaveral and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Not only had I never seen a launch from on the water, I had never even been on the water in that area. We sailed past the larger boats into the no motor area, surrounded by silence and a few dolphins in the distance.

Their dog wanted to watch the launch, too. - June 28, 2015
It was a beautiful launch, initially! - June 28, 2015
The SpaceX Falcon 9 soaring off the pad. - June 28, 2015

I got emotional during every space shuttle launch, especially after the Columbia incident. Each time we light one of those astronaut-carrying rockets, we put human lives at risk. I still say a prayer for uncrewed rockets, but the emotional weight isn't the same for me. If I had a payload that I spent years on strapped to a controlled explosive, I might feel differently. But material goods are replaceable; people are not. I was more upset over last October's Virgin Galactic test failure that lost a pilot than I was about the Orbital Antares CSR-3 failure.

Having worked on International Space Station payloads, I do mourn the loss of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission supplies and experiments. It's a shame about Meteor, it's a shame about all those student experiments, it's a shame about the new equipment that was lost. As a scientist, I've experienced small experiment losses. I fried a few hundred dollar laser the first time I used it a few years back. Most of the lost equipment are orders of magnitude more expensive and harder to replace. But they are replaceable. They will rebuild. Some of these experiments may even be refined to become better than they were.

SpaceX will bounce back from its Falcon 9 failure, despite political pressures and industry nay-sayers. Rocket failures are inevitable. SpaceX experienced quite a number of them in their early years. In the United States especially, we take for granted that our experienced engineers will get the rockets successfully off the ground every single time. We can't get any mode of transportation to work perfectly 100% of the time, and we can never fully account for human error. This is hard work, and I have a great deal of respect for those who dedicate their lives to it.

Hats off to you, SpaceX, for attempting the ambitious time and time again. You go, scientists, students and professionals alike, who are undeterred by experimental setbacks. Kudos to you, engineers and support staff, for working long hours to launch and working long hours to analyze the launch. Let's keep moving forward!

The Falcon 9 will soar again. - June 28, 2015

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