The game of risk

After the orbit insertion of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mother ship (TGO) and the hard touchdown of the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM), I made some comments in one of my last blog posts explaining why, to my mind, we should not feel completely frustrated and disheartened. But I had to accept that many did not share that view, expecting me instead to make clear my dissatisfaction in far more blunt terms.

While thinking about this, I happened to look at the reporting of SpaceX’s third attempted landing of a first rocket stage on a drone ship when, unfortunately, the stage exploded after one of its legs failed to deploy correctly.

It is interesting to compare the media reaction to these events.

This is how the Schiaparelli crash was reported in the British newspaper, the Daily Express:

That seems fair enough, you might say. They got their facts right, as did the German newspaper, Die Welt, reporting here on the Falcon 9 setback, in a headline translating as “SpaceX in yet another failed landing”:



Now, take a look at this example of US coverage of that same event:

Elon Musk himself went on to tweet as follows:

It is clear that both events bear certain similarities: the main goal of ExoMars 2016 was (and still is) to have the TGO in orbit to do science and act as a relay for ExoMars 2020. The EDM was a test to investigate the different stages of landing. That being the case, it actually performed rather well and we obtained a lot of data up until the impact on the surface.

The same is true in the SpaceX case: the rocket’s satellite payload was successfully brought into space, and although the trial landing of the first stage was not 100% successful, it did provide information on how to proceed in future.

These different perceptions on either side of the Atlantic are also representative of our differing cultures. In Europe we admire the risk-taking entrepreneurs in the US and at the same time are very unhappy with any failure. The culture can be described thus: we are ready to take any kind of risk, as long as success is guaranteed.

But risk-taking means that you accept a probability of failure well above 0. Especially in space, the environment is such that you are obliged to take risks because the margin between success and failure directly influences not only the necessary budget but also the time it takes. If I, as a civil engineer, were to design a rocket comprising all the safety features I would usually prefer to take into consideration, it would most probably be much too heavy.

Which brings me to my point: let us continue to take risks while taking the possible amount of damage into account when we decide on the extent of the safety measures required.



  • Lou Scheffer says:

    Note that SpaceX, when asked about their rocket crash, did not say “I don’t understand the question”. I think SpaceX gets less grief from the press since they are honest and not evasive up front. By waffling, you are practically asking the press to say “Rocket CRASHED! Major failure!”

  • GregJ says:

    I must agree, popular reporting seems to think anything less than perfect is failure. In the US, the popular press (vs more technical sites) viewed this as a catastrophe focusing on one thing that didn’t work right instead of the incredible number of things that did work fine.

    To all Spacers, Don’t Lose Heart, there are always those who won’t dare to try sniping at those who do dare.

  • Tessy says:

    L’ESA fait un boulot fantastique ! Toutes les expériences permettent de progresser. Continuez vous représentez ce que l’Europe a de mieux !

  • Ali says:

    I’m not sure the analogy is correct. First stage boosters are normally always destroyed by default. Attempting to land one and failing doesn’t matter – you lost nothing as it was going to be destroyed anyway.

    Designing, building and spending money on a lander and sending it all the way to Mars and have it crash (even if it is a secondary mission objective) is ‘more’ of a failure.

    BTW, I wholeheartedly support trying and failing in the name of science but I don’t agree with this EU/US argument – it’s too simplistic and doesn’t explain why the media was ‘unhappy’ with the Schiaparelli part of the mission

    • Kuba says:

      Reuse of 1st stage boosters is absolutely critical to Space X’s success. It’s not true that they “lost nothing” with each landing failure, for it pushed back the implementation of reuse in their business process. Reuse that the future of the company is absolutely dependent upon.

  • Mark Thornton says:

    Your use of the Daily Express reporting is not a good one. The Express is little more than toilet paper with some writing on for a lot of Brits, and little more than a Brexit propaganda ‘rag’, so it tends to take extremely negative views on anything it perceives as ‘European’. Even if the reality is that ESA is not strictly anything to do with EU per se, it still likes to denigrate anything with a European element.

  • Jose says:

    While the causes of the accident still be managed as top secret, the failure of schiaparelli still will see by taxpayers as catastrophic.

  • Juergen says:

    Dear Jan,
    while I generally agree with your argument of not overemphasizing the things that went wrong, but of highlighting and exploiting the things the benefits that were achieved, I don’t believe the analogy you prepare in your post is correct.

    Some points on this were already raised by Ali, highlighting the fact of the expendable booster in the first place. An additional point is: SpaceX was operating on their own money and their own risk, while ESA is spending government money. Unfortunately, that gives a very different view on the success criteria needed in both cases.

    Still, i agree with you that getting TGO into orbit around Mars and lots of data from Schiaparelli back is a major effort and success for Europe!

  • Name says:

    I agree with Ali. In addition, NASA landed on Mars successfully multiple times now. ESA tried to reproduce something others did before. SpaceX tries to achieve something no one ever achieved before.

  • Ole says:

    As I have understood it, the ESA method is a new one that is needed to land larger units than NASA have done so far.

  • Cacirro says:

    If one jumps over a breach and does not reach the other side by a 1%, someone may call it a 99% success, still the guy 100% fell down.

    That said, in the Space business, failure is a concept to be contemplated. What matters are the efforts put forward to prevent it and risk can be taken in a calculated way. Saying “let’s take a risk” or “be success oriented” as if this were sufficient to make the risk disappear, it is pure denial and failure is unavoidable.

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