Students’ Lesson From Launching Science Experiment Into Orbit… This Is Rocket Science

On Sunday morning three high school students were anxiously waiting for their science experiment to be lifted into orbit on board a SpaceX rocket that was scheduled to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  The students had been waiting for this day for eight months.  Eight months ago the same students from North Charleston, South Carolina had watched as their experiment was launched on board an Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia.  Just a few seconds after liftoff the rocket had exploded knocking one of the students off of his feet and giving off a tremendous blast of heat.  This time would be different.  Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice?

In this photo provided by Kellye Voigt, from left, Gabe Voigt, Joe Garvey and Rachel Lindbergh pose for a photo outside the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, June 28, 2015. (Kellye Voigt via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

This time the rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida and as it achieved liftoff the teens began to high five each other with excitement.  But as they headed to lunch their phones began to buzz with messages of condolence.  This rocket too had exploded before it could reach orbit.  With two attempts the teens had two failures.  What were the odds?

The reality is that while rocket failures are not as common as they once were when we ushered in the space race – they are hardly rare.  In fact this was the third failed rocket attempt to resupply the ISS.  The other cargo ship had to be abandoned in April after the Russians had lost control of it.  Now a fourth Russian cargo ship is scheduled to launch on July 3rd as each of the other organizations continue to determine what had gone wrong.

What I really appreciated about this story was the reaction from the students, there are some real lessons in their comments for all of us.

Joseph Garvey noted that “this one didn’t hit as hard or hurt as much, maybe because they really didn’t see it.”  Likely what also was a factor was that in feeling the failure of the first failure their anxiety was diminished with the second.  They had already been through a similar experience, they survived and moved on.

Rachel Lindbergh said, “That’s rocket science. Failure happens.”  She went on to comment, “Disappointing, sure, but you can’t let things stop you.”  How many times have we heard someone use the phrase “How hard can it be… it’s not rocket science?”  Well in this case it is rocket science.  It is hard and there are lots of variables involved in these equations.  Not even our most sophisticated computers can calculate every value and simulate the outcome.  But we persist anyway.  Sometimes we will fail and sometimes we will fail repeatedly.  But as Rachel suggests – you can’t let things stop you.

Each one of these students shared a real maturity about the episode but Gabe Voigt had already recognized the value in this lesson.  “There’s a lot of life lessons to take from this too.”  He went on to suggest that “If something happens, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of that.”  A failure can only be define as a failure when it is time boxed – otherwise it is just another attempt.

I have no doubt that these teenagers have the right attitude and hopefully their next attempt is successful.  Either way they have successfully learned the underlying lesson of scientific discovery, innovation, entrepreneurship.  Failures will happen along the way but as Albert Einstein noted “You never fail until you stop trying.


Image Credit: Kellye Voigt via AP

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