The Necessity of Failure

The path to discovery is paved with failure. Sir John FranklinRobert Falcon ScottGeorge Mallory and Andrew Irvine. These men all failed spectacularly in their efforts to explore the last untrod-upon corners of the Earth, but in their failures were laid the lessons and the inspiration by which others would succeed: Roald Amundsen in conquering the South Pole and the Northwest Passage, and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in summiting Everest.

By its very nature, the exploration of space invites failure. Space is a harsh and unforgiving place. It is difficult to get to, and even more difficult to survive in. Missions will fail and components will malfunction.

And yes, sometimes people will die.

Because of these possibilities, some say that human exploration of space is too dangerous, too risky, the chance of catastrophic failure and disaster too great; that we should instead explore vicariously only through robots or other automated systems. But this fear of failure serves only to promote a risk-averse culture that ultimately holds us back. It leads us to always choose the ‘safe’ option, which for the last several decades has left us stuck in Low Earth Orbit.

If we are ever to truly advance human spaceflight, the possibility, if not the inevitability, of failure is something which we must accept.

The readiness to accept that we might fail is what allows us to set the big goals, develop the technologies, and otherwise chart the course that will take us further into space. We were able to aim for the Moon despite the possibility of colossal failure. We did not know that such a thing could even be done, and yet we were willing to take the risk (Kennedy acknowledged the risk of failure in trying to explore space in his address to Congress). The ability to accept that we might fail gives us the freedom to try.

Failure is also instructive. Rather than being a dead-end, it allows us to move forward. Through failing, we learn where our mistakes lie and how to correct them. Failure serves as on a check on our own hubris, humbling us when we might be overreaching. Failure forces us to get it right.

Our early attempts at spaceflight and rocketry are a perfect illustration of this. The early Project Vanguard setbacks and the tragedy of Apollo 1, for example, were major factors in what allowed us to develop the tools and the experience that would land us on the Moon. Without failures like these to learn from along the way, we may have never even left the ground.

But beyond that, failure serves as an inspiration.

There is a great challenge to be found in the attempt to succeed where others have strived for something great and come to naught. The history of human explorations is rife with examples where failure has given birth to desires and motivations that drove explorers to persevere and triumph. Just as Amundsen was inspired by Franklin, so too were Hillary and Norgay by Mallory and Irvine. While we may not be immediately successful in our attempts to venture deeper into space, the sheer audacity of our efforts will drive future generations to achieve these dreams, and to reach heights that we cannot yet even fathom.

Failure is not easy. Sometimes, failure hurts. But failure is necessary. This is not to say that we should set out to fail or embrace wanton recklessness, but failure is something that we must acknowledge as an essential step on our long road to touch the stars. In accepting the possibility of failure, we are allowed the freedom, the knowledge, and the inspiration to succeed beyond the limits of what we imagine possible. But it we lose the willingness to fail, we lose the ability to chase our dreams. And if we lose that, we ourselves are lost.

2 thoughts on “The Necessity of Failure

  1. An interesting post. I agree that failure has its purposes. It can illustrate, more clearly than success, what went wrong, and in so doing what needs to be changed. But failure, especially cataclysmic failures, can also distract attention away from more pressing questions such as mission goals or societal value. For example, the late 19th century disasters of Greely and De Long in the Arctic in which 37 men died from starvation and exposure, did not lead to much soul searching about the value of reaching the North Pole. Instead, it increased the allure of polar exploration because — as you rightly state — “failure serves as inspiration.” So the next two decades saw dozens of new expeditions to reach the North Pole, often using novel technologies such as dirigibles, adaptations of Inuit technology, etc.without ever facing the deeper questions: Why are we there? Are these expeditions worth the risk in lives and expense? The failures of Challenger and Columbia also led to considerable discussion and action about improving shuttle safety and reliability. They also inspired President Bush to put forward the Vision for Space Exploration – an example of how failure can lead to new efforts while avoiding deeper questions about the quest itself. I wrote an editorial at Space Review on this subject last year if you are interested: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1181/1

    1. No, you are right that failure, when it pushes people to continue on, does tend to gloss over the reasons why we are even doing these things in the first place. Though, there are many times where failure does foster a debate over ‘why?’ I do remember several op-eds that were written around the time Bush’s VSE was released, questioning why we should even be sending humans into space at all. Granted, they constituted a small voice from what I remember, but it was there. I also recall from my Arctic history that as the age of polar exploration wore on, the Royal Navy and the British taxpayer began to grow more and more reluctant to fund these seemingly fruitless expeditions to the far north, and later the far south (the Discovery Expedition notwithstanding).

      I think, though, that the question of why we even take these risks is a separate issue, and really one that should be settled before we even do things like this in the future. The reasons may be different for everyone, but there needs to be something overarching that is clearly articulated. If that’s something we can do, then we can use failures as learning experiences, rather than treating them as points for continuously re-evaluating why we’re doing what we’re doing.

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