Exploding Rockets, Exploding Twitter

Or, why Elon Musk can learn from his mistakes at SpaceX, but not at his social network

Clive Thompson

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A Spacex Rocket taking off
Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

You probably saw the dramatic explosion last week of SpaceX’s humungous Starship. It made it 24 miles up, but a few minutes into the flight some of the 33 engines on the Super Heavy rocket failed. It began corkscrewing erratically, and an automated safety system blew it all up. (That’s not a pic of Starship above, BTW; Starship’s even huger!)

Seen one way, it was a failure: The goal is to have a rocket reach space, not turn into a fireball in the crisp Texas sky.

But if you put on your engineering hat, the flight had plenty of win. SpaceX engineers were thrilled that the rocket merely cleared the launch pad. As for the explosion? Sure, that happened — but it generated a ton of data about what went wrong. As the engineers noted, they’ll study it closely to help avoid similar mistakes the next time. That’s how they learned to land rockets on the ground, after all! There were tons of explosions early on, but they gathered data each time, patiently corrected their mistakes, and finally got it right.

When he talks about SpaceX, CEO Elon Musk regularly espouses this learn-from-your-mistakes process. When the rocket blew up, he cheerily tweeted praise to the engineers: “Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months”. For weeks he had carefully tempering expectations, essentially predicting failure — as he told the Wall Street Journal (friend link for non-subscribers), “a problem with an engine could cascade and destroy other engines, part of the vehicle or even the launchpad. Rebuilding the pad, depending on what happened, could take several months”. He was appropriately guarded and humble about the undertaking.

“If it does go wrong, it’s a lot to go wrong”, he noted. Or as he told CNN: “Success is not what should be expected … That would be insane.”

Carefully observing failure and gathering data so you can learn from blunders: This is sober leadership, right?

It really is. Which made me wonder: Wow, wouldn’t it be great if he operated this way while running Twitter?

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net