The Harmful Reporting of SpaceX’s Historic Starship Flight as a “Failure”
This week, the coverage of one of humanity’s most impressive milestones was reduced to a climax of fire. Starship didn’t fail. Science divulgation, however, might have.
It’s finally happening. I’m sitting in front of the TV after a three-day of an excruciating wait. It looks like Starship is ready to launch and the excitement and exhaustion are palpable. From our different corners of the world, space enthusiasts (and everyone else we could drag in) watch in awe as the 394ft tall Goliath finally fights the dense layer that keeps us all breathing. Up, up it goes, defying all of our preconceptions about what was possible in our lifetime.
Like a perfectly coordinated dance, Starship’s newly developed Raptor engines manage to climb, roll, and — to everyone’s amazement, bellyflop back into a vertical position. Each of these steps is, on its own, a historical achievement. The gorgeous gimbal and throttles as the novel engines glide back to earth make for an incredibly memorable moment. Even though the coda of this ballet is a ball of flame, YouTube streamers are giggling, the chatrooms celebrate, and Musk is tweeting again. We’re going to Mars!
The media, however, had a very different opinion. The Guardian headlined with “SpaceX Starship SN8 explodes on landing after test flight”. The NYT chose an equally moody “Starship Launch and Explode in Crash Landing”. To those who hadn’t been sipping caffeine all throughout the three consecutive launch windows, the message could have been interpreted as: “Starship was a failure”. Multiple voices thanked the heavens there weren’t actually people inside the rocket. Others began to cynically sell their Tesla stock or declared science expenditure a waste. I’m still pumping adrenaline, surprised I’ve managed to experience such intense joy amidst one of humanity’s most challenging years. And I’m flabbergasted.
SN8 was, by all measures, a success. Even if it didn’t accomplish that last task. Science embraces failure. Science fails regularly and at a high rate — and that’s what makes it extraordinary. Discovery is about finding those unexpected results, growing those simplistic models. We can’t find solutions to problems if we avoid failure; on the contrary, failure encourages us to broaden our perspective and explore alternatives. Minutes after Starship met the ground a little too enthusiastically, Musk said: “SpaceX has obtained all the data we needed from the test”. A first test, of a new engine, from a company that has made launches a weekly occurrence.
Eileen Parkes expresses it perfectly: “Comfortable science is an oxymoron”. Science reporters should know this. They should feel compelled to correctly communicate the scientific method. Heck, to communicate the immense joy and heartbreaking failure that make science a unique human experience. Because if you want to make discoveries, sometimes you need to take a leap in the dark. Or butt-dive into a giant plume of fire.