Failing Up (way up)

Elon Musk knows failure.  As the founder and CEO of SpaceX, a private space transportation and exploration company, he has witnessed several costly and gut-wrenching mishaps that have resulted in major setbacks in the company's path towards success.  In just over six years, SpaceX has attempted 30 rocket launches, and with each launch surpassing the previous one in terms of goals accomplished and lessons learned.  Not of all of these launches have been successful.   One of SpaceX's long-term goals is to develop the technology to eventually send humans to colonize Mars.  Mars!  To do this, rockets will need to be reusable, not only to save money and time but to also allow those who first get to Mars to be able to return.  Yeah, this is big.

The challenge in developing reusable rockets is that once they launch they need to return, and land...upright!  I find that completely incomprehensible (probably because I wasn't alive when Armstrong and Aldrin went for a stroll on the moon).  That humankind can send a 230ft rocket, weighing over 1 million pounds, at over 17,000mph, as high as 100 miles into the sky, return it to earth and land it vertically is truly remarkable and a tribute to the talents and determination of really bright, resilient and passionate people.  Since 2015, SpaceX has attempted this type of landing thirteen times, and on five of those occasions, the rocket failed to land perfectly upright and exploded.  Their first attempt was in January of 2015: failure.  April of 2015: failure.  June of 2015: failure.  And then this happened on December 22nd, 2015 (trust me, it's worth the three minutes of your time):

While the technology behind this feat is awe-inspiring, it is the reactions of the SpaceX employees that I enjoy the most.  Clearly, they are celebrating an extraordinary accomplishment that was formed through overcoming a series of failures.  A "We Did It!", Landing-on-the-Moon moment.

Since its publication in 2006, Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck has helped inform our beliefs about success and intelligence.  Dr. Dweck's TED Talk is one of the site's most popular with over five million views since 2014.  In her groundbreaking book, Dweck writes, "“the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” To work at SpaceX (or NASA, or any other aerospace transportation company) must require a growth mindset.  Failure can't be feared, but must be used as an inspiration to learn more, to embrace redesign, and solve problems.  As Thomas Edison is credited with saying, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” The innovators of today have learned to embrace failure as an iterative step towards success.   

This past fall, thirty-four students in our school participated, for the first time, in a First LEGO League (FLL) robotics competition.   The students, led by a patient and passionate group of volunteer parents, spent nearly three months learning to build and program LEGO robots to accomplish specific, autonomous tasks. Having little prior knowledge about this program and programming robots, our students embraced the challenge with positive attitudes and willingness to expand their learning horizons (see Dweck's Growth Mindset).  I can attest to many moments of frustration as the result of a failed "run" or glitch in a program code.  Yet these teams of students worked collaboratively and creatively to overcome these obstacles and, by the end of the season, were able to successfully program their robots to accomplish a diverse series of tasks.  

Our culminating event was an inter-squad competition that required each of the teams to accomplish specific missions.  At one of the stations the task was to get the robot to make a difficult turn and go over a fence (see picture above).  One of the teams made three attempts and couldn't get the robot lined up exactly right (they were under a strict time limit too) to accomplish the task.  They were frustrated; this was their "landing of the rocket" moment.  They knew they had the programming and design skills to accomplish the task but they couldn't pinpoint the exact problem that was preventing their success.  I could tell by their reactions that they cared about finding the right solution.   They would have stayed all night long programming, testing, and redesigning to get this specific mission right.  At that point, I didn't care if they figured it out, that wasn't what was important to me.  I knew they cared, and I knew that they wouldn't let failure stop them from trying, but rather they would use the experience to push them towards success; they were intrinsically motivated, a crucial component of lasting success.  

So that's what I think when I see hundreds of SpaceX employees, most of whom look like they are only ten years older than our LEGO Robotics students, celebrating a successful launch and landing; an exuberant celebration of perseverance, resilience, collaboration and success- fueled by failure.

Related Resources:

On February 19th, 2017- SpaceX did it again.  See them stick the landing that inspired this blog post:

How can educators and parents encourage the next generation of innovators.  See this blog post, "Graduating All Students Innovation Ready" , by Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators and Most Likely to Succeed. 

 SpaceX isn't the only game in town.  Blue Origins, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, also hopes to get in the space travel business.  Their goal is to establish private tours of space.  They too, have figured out how to land the reusable rocket.  See below: