Learn from Your Mistakes

"I do experiments to be embarrassed," said the young professor of rocket science.

He had a very interesting and humble way of looking at the reason he did laboratory work. Before doing an experiment, you must have a theory that you are testing. It doesn't have to be your own theory, although it might be. It could be Einstein's general theory of relativity that you are putting to the test. According to Einstein's theory, a specific outcome would be expected, so we say that Einstein predicts a certain result.

Sometimes people get the wrong impression of science and think it is a belief system; that scientists (and everyone else) have to believe Einstein because he was a great genius, so whatever he said must be true and so we set up experiments to find more evidence that he was right. But science is the opposite of belief because scientists are often trying to prove that a previous theory is wrong. When a test of relativity is done, the scientist who does it is challenging Einstein—the experiment could prove that Einstein was wrong. The scientist who does the experiment could achieve a kind of immortality for toppling a great genius. Because Einstein's theory is so well established, proving him wrong would be worth a Nobel prize, even if the scientist who did it didn't have a new theory. This is how scientists become famous. Einstein did it to Newton by proving that Newton's law of gravity could not explain the motion of the planet Mercury, whereas Einstein's theory explained the motion precisely and also predicted the bending of starlight by the sun, which was later proved by photographs of a solar eclipse.

So that's why the young professor wanted to be embarrassed, so he could learn something new about the universe; getting embarrassed is tantamount to becoming famous. Maybe he wasn't that humble.

When mistakes are made in the space program, the results can be far worse than mere embarrassment. Rockets explode, billiondollar satellites are destroyed, lives are lost. Sometimes the mistakes are due to poor workmanship, bad design, insufficient oversight, or lack of funding. In the best cases, when everything is done right, we can still be surprised.

We go into space to learn new things. Space is the most hostile of all environments, but it also offers us a wealth of power and a source of security for the future of humanity. The average American supports NASA's space program and is very forgiving of the agency's mistakes, because most people understand that space travel is extremely hazardous and that the risks are great.

But not all of NASA's mistakes are innocent lessons that come with the territory. Some mistakes were mistakes on the drawing board. NASA misled Congress about the safety, reliability, and economy of the shuttle. Richard Feynman makes the case in his penetrating book What Do You Care What Other People Think? It is time for NASA to go back to the great lessons that were learned in getting to the moon. It is time for NASA to abandon the shuttle, to design unmanned heavy-lift inexpensive boosters, and smaller human-rated launchers. It is time for NASA to set their goal on human exploration of Mars with a comprehensive plan for getting there.

It is time for NASA to start thinking like rocket scientists again.

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