in·cre·men·tal

/ˈˌiNGkrəˈˌmen(t)l,ˈˌinkrəˈˌmen(t)l/
adjective
relating to or denoting an increase or addition, especially one of a series on a fixed scale.

“incremental changes to the current system”

suc·cess

/səkˈses/
noun
plural noun: successes
the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

“the President had some success in restoring confidence”

May 30, 2020. Another historic day in United States Human Spaceflight.

After an initial delay due to weather on May 27th, today marks the first day in approximately 9 years that we have launched 2 astronauts from US soil on a US launcher and almost 40 years since we launched astronauts on a brand new launch vehicle.  There have been many many reasons that we have not had a US launch since STS-135 and the end of the Space Shuttle Program.  We can discuss the political, technical, budgetary, and other reasons another time.  Regardless of the reasons, this day has been a long time coming.

The rise of “Commercial Space” has been a sight to behold.  While I have had (and still have) some issues with the “culture” of some of the industry partners, their results to date have been exactly what space exploration as a movement has needed.  It is actually encouraging that there are multiple industry partners now competing for a large segment – including moving beyond low Earth orbit. 

Launch!

The launch today is but one part of the measurement of success for the total mission – but it was a MAJOR step forward.  Congratulations to SpaceX and NASA for moving this ahead in a very measured and incremental basis.

That actually brings me to the title of this blog entry: “Incremental Successes”

The definitions at the top show exactly what I mean by this phrase – and it is intended in the most complimentary way possible.  Spaceflight is no place for reckless abandonment of process and safety or the dangerous appeal of hubris based on previous accomplishments.

The buildup to Demo Mission 2 (DM2) has been decidedly incremental – with SpaceX’s proven history of improving the Falcon 9 booster system over several years of successful launches, recovery of first stage boosters (!!), autonomous docking with the International Space Station (ISS), and safe return to Earth. 

The development of the Crew Dragon capsule has been a positive example of combining modern interfaces and technologies with a steady improvement on previous designs.  Demo Mission 1 and the Launch Escape Demonstration have proven the system ready for flight.  NASA has independently validated the system, and DM2 has gone through the Flight Readiness Review process developed early in the space program, then improved throughout the Shuttle program, and extended to ISS and beyond.

Incrementalism can be frustrating at times – as there are occasional technical setbacks and overall not as much visible progress as a media-hungry public demands.  All eyes were on SpaceX during their Falcon Heavy launch and the over-the-top (and honestly fun) optics of a Tesla Roadster in orbit.  The media-savvy and demanding public need for visual spectacles made this an automatic hit – bravo to SpaceX for hitting that one out of the park.

But, in the “what have you done for me lately?” public perception – that faded quickly from the forefront, as the latest shiny object distracted a fickle populace to something else.  

Building on the past

Any incremental success has to both acknowledge and celebrate the successes upon which the current progress is made, right?  There are very few unique “Eureka!” events – and most of science, technology, and exploration in general is the result of (sometimes literal) blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before.  But it is also absolutely critical to recognize major advances based on the summation of building on the past.  Today is one of those days.

Heck – even the launch pad was symbolically incremental … Launch Pad 39A was used for the first lunar landing mission launch (Apollo 11, obviously), the first Space Shuttle launch (STS-1 and Columbia in 1981), and now the first launch of human astronauts on Crew Dragon! 

When I joined the Shuttle Program in 1986, I knew that we were extending the amazing work of those who designed and developed the procedures of the first 25 flights.  After the Challenger Accident, the team came together as one family, tore those procedures completely apart, and put them back together to make an incrementally better set of rules and processes by which we grew the Program beyond what our predecessors had done.  And our predecessors had, in their turn, done the same with the Apollo era procedures… as had they from Mercury/Gemini … etc.

Every time we made substantial steps forward, it was clear that we could not have done it without the tireless dedication of the men and women who did great things before us

Extending to the future

Now is not the time to rest on successful laurels. 

Keep pushing forward.  Extend the boundaries.  Push the envelope.  But do it safely and smartly, with an acknowledgement of what came before.

When we return to the Moon and the first astronaut sets foot on Mars, everything that has been accomplished today will be looked back upon as yet another incremental success towards those great and monumental events.

And you were there.  Cheering them on. 

Remember this day.  I will.

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1 Comment

  1. Terrance Jones

    Keep going! Yay SpaceX and NASA!

    Reply

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