Launch Scrubs Are Actually Successes


With the excitement building in the aerospace world for the first commercial crew launch (from any country) by SpaceX from the Florida coast, everyone was looking for smoke and fire and a needle-thin rocket rising from the launch pad and into the sky on Wednesday. But that was not to be, as late spring brought rain and thundershowers, raising the lightning potential beyond an acceptable level of risk for NASA, SpaceX and the crew.

Everyone remembers the time NASA launched a Saturn V—Apollo 12—into a thunderstorm and the resulting few seconds of feverish activity to bring the spacecraft back online as it flew swiftly spaceward. It spawned a generation of rocket geeks who knows exactly what “Flight, have them set SCE to Aux” means, and a minor T-shirt industry keeps the memory alive.

And so the first launch attempt was scrubbed Wednesday. The rocket was ready, the teams were ready, the crew was ready. The ISS awaits the visit anxiously. But the rules said scrub and scrub they did. And that, my friends, is part of the flight test game and in a significant way, it is a day of success.

Whether you are flying a multibillion-dollar spaceship or a Pietenpol for the first time, the measure of a good day is if you made good decisions, carried out your plan and followed your rules. You might fly, you might not. But if you don’t, you still have the spaceship or the aircraft to fly on a day when things are better.

No one important gives out medals for taking silly risks, for breaking a carefully designed plan, or disregarding rules in the heat of battle that were made in the cool of a meeting room. Those who pressure people to fly when they shouldn’t are, by definition, unimportant to those who take flying as a sacred profession and something to take seriously with deliberate care. The first flight of a new machine is especially important, not only for the lives at risk, but for the fact that if you get it wrong, the entire program might be finished.

I was privileged to be a part of the Space Shuttle flight program from the first flight to the last, and I lost count early on of the number of times we scrubbed versus the number of times we launched. I’m sure I have the numbers somewhere in a reference book in one of these boxes I have stacked in my closet. But the numbers aren’t important because, in the end, no one cares. No one remembers. They only remember when you launched when you shouldn’t have and something bad happened. And that’s why I say that a valid scrub is a measure of success. It means that your organization, your flight team, is professional, dedicated and wants to get it right.

SpaceX and NASA are flying, as NASA has always done, in the full public eye. Everyone sees what is going on, the good stuff, and the bad. If something bad happens, it’s important that folks understand the context and appreciate that the team did its best. And the same thing is true for a simple scrub. They’ll recycle the timeline and crank it up for the next opportunity. Orbital mechanics dictate when you can launch and get to the Space Station. If that attempt doesn’t go, they’ll recycle again and try again.

You can control your hardware, you can control your team, and you can control your emotions, whether it’s a public space program, or the first flight of your new homebuilt. What you can’t control is the weather, especially the Florida weather in May. Or June. Or just about any time of the year in Florida. I’m willing to wait it out, and will cheer when the Dragon soars into the sky. Whenever that might be.

Good job guys. You make us old folks proud.

Paul Dye is editor at large for AVweb’s sister publication, KITPLANES. He’s a retired lead flight director for NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor, as well as a former member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.

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  1. I was disappointed that it got scrubbed, but mission rules are mission rules, and those that fail to follow them…

    I’d be kind of curious, though, which would take a lightning strike better. Apollo-Saturn or modern rockets? I somehow expect the former, though both likely have a lot of randomization to them. And of course, this is more a hypothetical question than one worth finding out for real!

  2. Paul is correct. No one will remember the times you followed the rules and didn’t launch, but they will certainly remember the time you launched when you shouldn’t have and bad things resulted. NASA has tremendous pressure placed on it by the news media and the public to launch as scheduled, so scrubbing a launch is always a tough call – especially on days like Wednesday when the weather didn’t look that bad, but could have been. The interesting thing was that all the tourist observers interviewed after the scrub had the attitude of “well, we hoped we would see it, but better safe than sorry. Better luck next time.” Good job NASA & SpaceX.

  3. “They only remember when you launched when you shouldn’t have and something bad happened.”

    How true.

    The same holds true when making the go/no-go decision about flying one’s own plane.

    Unfortunately, there’s seldom a reward for cancelling a flight. In fact, there are often negatives – a missed event, the expense of an extra night in a hotel, the inconvenience of driving instead of flying. Which is why “get-home-itis” is such a powerful lure. The pleasant reward of “making it” by ducking a little lower or stretching a little farther is more appealing than the boring result of landing early, or waiting until later. It’s hard to get the primal brain to listen to the logic of safety. Experience usually (but not always) gets through with the lesson, but often at a very high price.