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Innovation

Ex-NASA engineer reveals one lesson SpaceX and Blue Origin need to learn ASAP

Homer Hickam, author of the book Rocket Boys that also became the film October Sky, says that NASA could teach Blue Origin and SpaceX some things about space.

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SpaceX and Blue Origin could learn a thing or two from NASA.

The two companies are perhaps the biggest names in spaceflight today, and SpaceX’s fast-moving approach means it has taken some of the best lessons from Silicon Valley and applied them to rockets.

But Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer perhaps best known for his 1998 memoir Rocket Boys, notes that sometimes it pays to be cautious. NASA learned hard lessons about hubris with the space shuttle program, which resulted in two high-profile disasters.

Want to know more about how Hickam inspired Bezos and Musk, what it was like to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, and how Hickam helped shape U.S. space policy? Read the full interview with Homer Hickam, only in MUSK READS+.

SpaceX and Blue Origin: How they move fast

Rocket Boys, which inspired the 1999 film October Sky, chronicles how Hickam built his own rocket as part of his dream of becoming a rocket scientist. His new memoir, Don’t Blow Yourself Up, chronicles his time at NASA. Like SpaceX, Hickam tells Inverse that as a child he would also take a move-fast-and-break-things approach.

“It's what we call skunkworks type of engineering,” Hickam says. “We would try something, it would blow up, and we go, ‘Okay, let's tweak it a little bit, let's try it again.’ And it would blow up, and it's like, ‘Okay, we need to modify this.’”

The Starship is perhaps the best example of how SpaceX utilizes this type of engineering. SpaceX plans to use the fully-reusable rocket to send the first humans to Mars.

From December 2020 to May 2021, it launched five prototype rockets to high altitudes to test their reusability. The first four were destroyed in sometimes impressively fiery displays, but the fifth landed successfully.

“It's a spectacular type of engineering, a scary type of engineering, but it actually works and it's a lot cheaper in the long run,” Hickam says.

Blue Origin arguably follows a slightly different approach. Its motto, “gradatim ferociter,” is Latin for “step by step, ferociously.” Founder Jeff Bezos wanted the company to move slowly and cautiously.

Brad Stone, author of Bezos book Amazon Unbound, told Inverse in June that Blue Origin’s early days had “an intimate kind of skunkworks” environment. This changed as Bezos grew impatient with the slow rate of progress and made a series of internal changes, including hiring a CEO from the traditional aerospace sector.

NASA: What SpaceX and Blue Origin can learn

NASA has a series of accolades to its name, including landing the first humans on the Moon. But as a government agency, it was forced to take a cautious approach to its projects.

“A government organization like NASA, they launch their rocket, and it fails,” Hickam says. “They do it two or three times and pretty soon they are called up on Capitol Hill, yelled at by a bunch of congressmen, and funds are reduced.”

Sometimes NASA “got carried away” and tried to break from this cautious approach. This, Hickam notes, is where some of the biggest issues came up. In particular, he cites the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that killed seven crew members.

The Space Shuttle Challenger.Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“When the Challenger exploded [...] that was a result of NASA going too fast,” Hickam says. “It was under a lot of public pressure to launch, and they launched in a very, very unsafe condition.”

The Rogers Commission Report that investigated the disaster came to a similar conclusion. It noted that NASA aimed to reach a schedule of 24 flights per year, which “created pressure” in the agency that led to “unsafe launch operations.”

“The Committee believes that the pressure to push for an unrealistic number of flights continues to exist in some sectors of NASA and jeopardizes the promotion of a ‘safety first’ attitude throughout the Shuttle program,” the report read.

In 2003, another disaster struck. The Columbia shuttle broke up during its return to Earth, killing all seven onboard.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board again found issues with NASA’s approach to safety. An August 2003 report found that the agency “does not provide effective checks and balances, does not have an independent safety program, and has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization.”

The Space Shuttle Columbia on its first mission.Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Finally, we understood that it was an experimental machine, and we kept treating it like it was operational,” Hickam says. “That was a big mistake.”

It seems reasonable, but not everyone agrees with a more safety-focused approach. In his 2013 book Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space, author Rand Simberg argued that spaceflight is painfully rare because of a focus on making it as safe as possible.

At the time of the book’s publication, around 500 people had gone to space with a 4 percent death rate. Simberg focused on NASA’s culture and its surrounding context, and called on Congress to stop demanding NASA focuses so much on safety.

Update 11/08 11:30 a.m. Eastern time: After this story was published, Simberg explained on Twitter that his book is about how “safe” is not an option rather than “safety.” He suggested that Hickam and himself likely don’t disagree about the value of safety, which Hickam confirmed in response.

Blue Origin and SpaceX: How they plan to send more people into space than ever

Blue Origin and SpaceX both aim to create permanent settlements in space, Blue Origin with floating cities in Earth’s orbit and SpaceX with a city on Mars.

To build these, they will need to send a lot more people into space. Blue Origin aims to enable Earth and its surroundings to eventually host one trillion humans, while SpaceX wants to send at least a million people to its Mars city by 2050.

Moving fast and breaking things may work as a means of getting results and reducing costs. SpaceX made rapid progress with its Starship tests, and CEO Elon Musk aims to host the first orbital flight as early as this year.

But while Hickam and Simberg may disagree on the value of safety, they may agree that NASA could not afford to suffer such losses, especially considering pressures from Congress and the general public. NASA’s disasters highlight the importance of, as Hickam says, not getting carried away — an important lesson for both companies to preemptively bear in mind.

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