The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy by SpaceX and the landing of two of its three booster rockets marked a milestone for the company and for spaceflight. The visuals were amazing (Starman in a Tesla… twin booster rocket touchdowns… are you kidding me?). But more interesting than the launch itself were the comments from SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk the day before the launch. When asked what he thought the odds of success would be, this is what he told the reporter from ArsTechnica.
“There’s a lot that could go wrong,” Musk admitted. “A really tremendous amount. I really like to emphasize that the odds of success are not super high. I don’t want to jinx it—I’m tempted to say. Because I feel super optimistic. But I feel as though that optimism has no basis in fact. I feel like we’ve got a two-thirds chance of success, but in reality we only have a 50-50 chance.”
A 50-50 chance? Musk was comfortable watching at least $90 million go up in a ball of flames. In fact, he was expecting it. That sentiment gets to the heart of prototyping and its critical role in innovation.
Ideas are only ideas until you make something
SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the goal of becoming a commercially viable company in an industry known for massive cost overruns. To be viable, they had to lower the cost of each launch. Early on, the SpaceX team seized on a key aspect of spaceflight that bloated the costs— the rocket hardware itself. Booster rockets—the key piece of machinery that catapults a payload into orbit—had historically been ditched in the ocean. The boosters that didn’t sink to the bottom of the sea (a complete loss) were soaked in seawater, meaning the entire system, including the massively complex engines, needed to be disassembled, cleaned, inspected and reassembled before the rocket could be used again. SpaceX had a novel idea: why don’t we land the boosters back on earth after they’ve completed their job?
A great idea, but SpaceX would need to prove it would work before anyone would contract them to fling their hardware into orbit around Earth. How would they prove it?
Many, many prototypes. Computer models. Component tests. Small test launches. Full scale test flights. Some of these tests were successful. But most of them were failures, because they were designed to be. In fact, SpaceX proudly released a video compiling some of their more spectacular failures.
New software, new hardware, or new concepts very rarely hit their mark perfectly on the first try. But failure can be revelatory and often provides more opportunities to perfect a product than success. In examining the root cause of a design failure, the product steadily improves.
Take your idea on a test flight
At Magnani, we’re not launching rockets. So what can we take away from this example? To us, it comes down to four words.
Test early. Test often.
As early as you can in the process, run strategic, UX, and creative concepts past colleagues that have no view on the project. Does this make sense? Is it telling the story you want to tell? What does your colleague think they should do next?
As the project continues to evolve, check back in with those same individuals and slot in more research with real users. Have the refinements we’ve made addressed your challenges? Is this a smoother experience? Are we better at communicating the narrative?
Embrace the explosions
When you get feedback that completely contradicts your assumptions, don’t be defensive or dismissive. Embrace the feedback. Examine what you missed. Were there biases in your team that may have blinded you to a better solution? Has a process or narrative become over-complicated and obscured the true objective of the project or deliverables?
Once you’ve uncovered the reason for your errors, document them in a way that other teams can learn from and build upon your experiences. In this way those teams can avoid experiencing the same pitfalls in the future, and instead move your practice forward.
SpaceX has steadily failed forward for the past 16 years. They’ve failed their way to successfully launching the world’s most powerful rocket and sticking the landing of two of three rocket boosters.
Oh, wait... did I mention the third booster slammed into the Atlantic Ocean at upwards of 300 mph, annihilating the rocket and damaging the droneship it was supposed to land on?
Looks like SpaceX still has some more to learn.