Hitting the Ocean - The Next 30 Trips - Issue #6
Shoot for the moon, if you miss at least you'll ... land in the ocean?
Well, ends up, that's not guaranteed either.
A Little Launch Story 🚀📝
Somehow, this June marks ten years since I finished graduate school and started my aerospace career at SpaceX as a launch engineer. Time has really flown by, and I've spent the last few years pulling together a bunch of my old launch stories, among dozens of others, for a book I'm writing.
Part of the research process has been cutting it up with old friends and remembering some of the absolutely bonkers stuff we have gone through together, building deep friendships through the creation of launch pads, landing barges, and whole companies.
Some great insights have bubbled up from this writing process and I am working to capture them all in the book, which I'll probably end up sharing more about another time.
However, I just couldn't help but share one of my favorite stories from when I first started aerospace consulting. This story is about setting goals and managing expectations when you do something for the first time.
It's about making sure that when you tell one set of people you're shooting for the moon, and another that you only have to hit the ocean, you might find both to be rather difficult to achieve.
The 80/20 of Designing Up 🧮📈
Rocketry is hard. Aerospace CEO's love to remind us of that when their mission doesn't work out, but you know what, it's true. Rocketry is hard. It's one of the very few things in life that is actually binary. It works, or it doesn't, and once you launch it there's no room to iterate. Put another way, this is not horseshoes or hand grenades. Therefore, it is really important to set clear design goals and work to achieve them.
However, the thing about engineers is that they tend to design to a very specific target. For instance, if you tell them that the mass of the vehicle must be "X" and the thrust of the engines must be "Y", that's what they're going to design towards. It's their job, in fact, and management generally reinforces this by budgeting accordingly (if they're lucky).
Funny thing is, usually engineers will design *up* to their goals, working from a lower point up to their design point, rather than working down. Further, they may not end up putting enough margin in the design as they go. Due to real world losses often being greater than those modeled, their component will likely initially underperform. They then end up with something that's 80% of the way there and but find that the last 20% of performance takes 80% of the time to eke out. Shooting higher originally would have let them tune down, which tends to be much easier.
This phenomenon is how one of the teams we worked with ended up with a rocket that was overweight and whose engines underperformed. This is a deadly combo for a launch vehicle. In essence, it could fly to orbit but it just couldn't take anything with it. Meaning no payload, meaning no revenue, meaning no purpose.
Setting the Right Goals for the Right People 👯
Setting the right goals early on is really important, but just as important is setting those goals with the right people. Certainly, you have goals that you share with your investors, advisors, and the board. Ideally, these would also be the goals set with your team and develop into actionable plans.
But, strangely enough, I often see aerospace companies (and startups at large) set different goals between different stakeholders. The way they rationalize this is by saying that the Big Scary Goals are aspirational; they are the guiding light shining over the mountainous terrain of the daily journey. Those are the ones in the pitch deck. The team then works towards a different set of goals, believing that they'll iterate to the Big Scary Goals slowly over time.
There's nothing wrong with this, per se - we should break Big Scary Goals into a set of achievable milestones. But every stakeholder should also be clear on what the goals, milestones, and timelines are. Otherwise, you're bound to create confusion.
Note that if you take the "80/20 Design" approach from above and combine it with the dichotomous goals found here, then ... well, then, read on to see what happens next 👇🚀💥
Speaking it into Existence 🧙♀️✨
One of my first clients when I started consulting was a team that planned to launch off of Kodiak Island in Alaska. There is an awesome facility there called the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska (PSCA) which launches commercial and government missions alike.
I was in charge of designing a lot of the ground systems that would prepare the launch vehicle for flight. I supported these systems from conception through build and even wrote most of the procedures to operate them. As such, I was invited to come stay on PSCA with the team as they got ready to launch for the first time. I served as a field engineer, setting up the equipment and troubleshooting any challenges that arose.
One thing that kept happening was anytime we had an issue, leadership would say, "Don't worry! We just have to hit the ocean!"
This seemed like a really bad idea to me, for many reasons, but chiefly because the 80/20 Design Rule also applies to operations. For a first launch, especially, if your secret goal is to hit the ocean, then you go for orbit with everything you've got knowing you'll likely come up short.
However, adopting the "hit the ocean" mentally in the run up to launch meant that we were more likely to only get 80% of the way to the ocean.
Well, without saying too much, that's exactly what happened.
After many tries, the rocket launched and rose up. After about 20 seconds we couldn't hear it anymore. It was one of the longest silences of my life. Then, shortly after, we heard a huge explosion. The vehicle had shut down and fallen back onto the range.
They had fallen short of their secret goal (well short of their highly publicized goal) and now had a huge mess to clean up and expensive remediation to perform.
What's the Takeaway?
Well, there's a few things.
First and foremost, shoot for the moon when it comes to design: Add healthy margins where you can and tune down to the design point rather than chasing it up.
Second, you will hit whatever target you are looking at. Or at least, that's the one you'll come closest to. If you're looking squarely at orbit and fall short on the first attempt, that's one thing. But if instead you're looking at the ocean and fall short, well, that's another thing all together.
Finally, I don't share this story to embarrass or deride anyone involved. Remember, rocketry is hard. So is just about every other area of human achievement. I am proud of that team and was thrilled to get to experience that time with them. I just think that there's a lot of benefit in sharing a story like this so we can all learn from it, as well as see that we're fallible in one way or another.
And ff nothing else, at least take this away: always, always, test like you fly.