In the mind of any reasonable and rational person, it would seem to make sense that when building a rocket destined for space, one would try to minimize the frequency with which it blows up. Each rocket failure is an incredibly expensive loss, after all. Lucky for us, Elon Musk, CEO of Spacex, is anything but reasonable.
In the past year, we have witnessed no less than four Starship rocket prototypes explode, rupture, or collapse, with not a single one having lit an engine for flight. The Starship rocket, if you remember, is hoped to be the world’s first fully and rapidly reusable rocket. But if the rockets are collapsing on the pad before an engine is even lit, isn’t this effort doomed to failure?
Spacex was the first private company to build and launch a rocket into orbit. It was also the first to land an orbital-class rocket back here on Earth, and recently became the first private company to launch humans into space. So why is this innovation juggernaut seemingly unable to build even the pressure vessel (the simplest part) of its latest rocket?
The answer lies in the equation posted by Elon Musk months ago:
Technological Progress = Iterations x Progress Between Iterations
Many Starships are failing, but only because the Starship rocket itself is NOT the primary focus right now. The focus is building the “machine that builds the machine” (the production processes and machinery needed to build Starship rockets quickly and cheaply.) Spacex is not building Starship yet, they are building a rocket assembly line. Starship failures are not “rocket failures” so much as they are demonstrations of weaknesses in the production system.
Indeed, between those failures, the time required to build each ill-fated Starship prototype has been steadily decreasing, as is the likely cost. Since rockets are essentially pressure vessels with engines (they are simple in that regard), once the production process for the pressure vessel/engines is refined and perfected, Spacex will be able to build and test iterations of the Starship rocket far faster than anything seen in the history of aerospace. This is a gamble on Spacex’s part, as nothing like this has ever been attempted before. Nonetheless, such novel means of innovation should be applauded and celebrated.
Why This Matters
According to the above equation, each completed and tested iteration provides the necessary feedback loop required for engineers to tweak and modify the next iteration so that it may be further improved. In other words, the faster Starships roll off the assembly line, the faster rocket technology advances, and the sooner humans are back on the Moon and onward to Mars. This novel to innovation may well change the course of human history.
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