Different approaches to risks in the private and public sector

Artist’s rendering of ESA’s Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module

On October 19th 2016, the Schiaparelli Entry Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) was rapidly approaching the surface of Mars. The module had been developed to demonstrate some very cool new technology. A key capability for putting humans on Mars is the ability to land heavy payloads—a difficult proposition, considering the low Martian gravity, combined with its thin and windy atmosphere. Schiaparelli was designed to test an as-yet unproven approach to reaching the Martian surface.

Rather than touching down softly, Schiaparelli’s systems performed some critical miscalculations, resulting in the module’s crash landing and failure. The outcome for the mission planners, ESA and Roscosmos, was valuable data that has allowed them to resolve problems in their landing sequence for the real lander that will reach Mars in 2020.

A successful demonstration that will save a lot of money and heartache for future missions.

Press coverage of the landing was less gracious, however. Spaceflight101.com called it a “botched landing sequence”. And while it was generally acknowledged that the lander completed its duties, Schiaparelli was not understood as a success.

Perhaps the public space sector is a victim of its own success. Governments have been the driving force behind putting the first animals and humans into space, landing on the moon, landing robots on other planets—and even comets and asteroids! —and leaving the solar system. With such an incredible track record, taxpayers can be unhappy to hear that even the slightest details don’t go perfectly according to plan. They’re even less happy when spacecraft fail.

Especially space agencies that are highly dependent on public mandate have thus become very cautious, launching vehicles and instruments only after extensive testing that can convince them that the chances of failure are next to none. This can hold the exploitation of space back. How do you prove instruments if you never fly unproven instruments? A single explosion led to the ultimate demise of the very successful Space Shuttle missions. Put simply, the public sector can’t afford to fail. But they also can’t afford not to act.

  • When it happens to the public sector, it’s often criticised, likely due to their very good track record
  • This has led to public sector being seen as slow, un-innovative
  • Not so for the public sector, where failure is seen is something very cool

So how do we break the deadlock?

In the private sector things look very different. There’s a certain amount of swagger that can be associated with taking risks, especially when it’s private money at stake, and not precious tax funds.

Take a look at SpaceX as one prominent example of many. The famous Starman mannequin launched on board the maiden Falcon Heavy flight was originally intended to orbit the Sun at the same distance as Mars. It missed by several thousand kilometres—the “engine ignition worked a little too well”. When the central core of the Falcon Heavy, which has not survived a landing yet, was lost, the launch was described as otherwise successful”, as “the side boosters stuck the landing and (importantly) the payload reached orbit as intended. And when the company launched its first 60 Starlink satellites and a full 5% of them failed on orbit, the result was more in the realm of enthusiasm than consternation or concern. To put that in context, try to imagine a state-owned space program with a 5% failure rate. It would be catastrophic.

Space is the most hostile environment humanity has access to, and risks are inevitable. Many argue—correctly—that this would be impossible if companies (like SpaceX) weren’t willing to take the necessary risks so that we can achieve full use of the space frontier.

Indeed, this is exactly the intent of state actors when planning research and development activities.

The public sector remains, for now, the only group of actors who have chances of executing crewed space exploration programmes. Undertaking such activities necessarily involves innovation and risk. And thus a symbiosis has evolved where state actors transfer a maximal amount of risk to private contractors who are capable of absorbing failures, or going under themselves, to be replaced by their competitors. When it’s necessary to push the envelope, the private sector accepts the risks due to the possibility of great financial reward.

This symbiosis will become increasingly potent and necessary in the context of the renewed efforts of state actors to move the boundaries of human habitation beyond our planet. For example, in the construction and operation of the Lunar Gateway. Never has it been more important to mobilise the resources only states have to go to space, and tackle the high risks associated with that.

Posted by Daniel Lee