Putting A Face To The Perils Of Space Flight


As you can imagine, we get a lot of email here at AVweb and it’s frankly overwhelming. Over the years I’ve learned to discern the potentially fruitful communications in terms of newsworthiness, and I open and read them carefully. The rest, I’m afraid, run the risk of remaining unopened on our server and for that I apologize. We have room for a very limited amount of news and have only so much time to research and write stories.

Having said that, we are willing to be prodded into action. If you have something you think should really, really be shared with our readers, try again and convey some urgency. Chances are someone will have a look.

I offer that as context for the purely random chance that I came across SpaceX for the first time. The subject line said something benign like “interesting” or “look at this” which can trigger a click from me and in this case it did. I was so blown away by what I saw on the attached video that I immediately put it at the top of our page.

In a scene right out of Buck Rogers, a small rocket was shown maneuvering around an untidy plot of land littered with bits and pieces of other rockets. It moved seemingly randomly, always remaining perfectly vertical about 100 feet off the ground but changing altitude, too.

It finally settled on a small concrete pad and remained upright. That means it was a rocket with full directional and throttle control at a time when every other rocket booster was essentially a container for a controlled explosion that, once lit, burned at full power until it either ran out of fuel or the fuel was cut off, which was the limit of control.

Fifteen or so years later we don’t even think twice about SpaceX recovering boosters by landing them on drone barges bobbing in the ocean or back at the launch site. The company has virtually taken over the commercial launch business and so far has a perfect safety record.

It didn’t start that way. During the development of the myriad technologies involved in that magic, SpaceX lost many vehicles, often in spectacular fashion. It was, as we’ve all more or less come to accept, a trial-and-error method of flight testing that channeled resources into progressive real-time data collection on actual failures instead of trying to prevent those failures in pursuit of the flawless first launch.

Massive explosions are kind of anathema to the FAA and its resistance to SpaceX’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward the safety that is the agency’s core responsibility became a hot topic and probably delayed development. SpaceX founder Elon Musk bears some responsibility there. I haven’t decided if he’s irritatingly smug or smugly irritating but he has definitely chafed his way to the top.

I was among the chorus urging the FAA to let SpaceX keep blowing things up as long as they made progress without hurting anyone. The FAA has at least partly come around on that. Witness the relatively quick progression of testing on Musk’s crowning achievement, his Starship system, and the equally spectacular results so far. All three test flights ended in massive explosions, but test two’s rapid unplanned disassembly happened much later in the flight than the first and the third actually almost completed the mission.

But rather than join the cheer squad of optimists hyping the “progress” of the test program, I have growing discomfort in the pit of my stomach. You see, I kind of know one of the astronauts who will likely fly on the system at some point in the future.

Col. Jeremy Hansen will be one of four crew members on the second NASA Artemis flight, a lap around the moon as a precursor to mankind’s return to the moon on Artemis 3. Hansen’s mission will be launched by the NASA Space Launch System, which is basically the same as the system used to launch the Space Shuttle. It’s as proven as any launch system can be, I suppose, but there are certainly no guarantees in space flight. He and his crewmates will be the first to occupy Lockheed Martin’s Orion crew capsule, which did a dress rehearsal for the moon flight in 2022 without anyone onboard.

Anyhow, it’s almost certain that Hansen will return to space on the Starship system at some point in the future, maybe even on a trip to Mars, which is the ultimate goal of the system. But even though I would never presume to call him a friend, I have to admit our chance acquaintance has given me a different perspective on the risks and rewards of space exploration.

Hansen was in the exhibitor’s space next to mine at an airshow in Hamilton, Ontario, about 10 years ago. I was hawking subscriptions and swag for another publication so Hansen definitely had the cooler gig. He had flown an F-86 Sabre owned by Vintage Wings of Canada, a private collection in Gatineau, Quebec, to the show. An F-18 pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Hansen had recently been named a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, but this was the weekend and he was volunteering as the Sabre pilot.

Hansen spent the day talking to hundreds of people about the airplane, which was one of the star static display attractions, and his new job. He had his photo taken hundreds of times, answered at least as many questions, most of them over and over again, and kept a smile on his face the whole time. I sold a few subscriptions and ball caps.

He also agreed to write an article for a flight training guide for this other publication I was representing. We chatted about the experience he and my son, also an RCAF pilot, shared as teenaged members of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and students at Royal Military College, both important pipelines for future military pilots and, yes, astronauts.

The show had an unusual configuration in that the spectator and exhibit area was on a grass infield on the other side of an active taxiway. Almost all spectators and exhibitors got to the infield on one of dozens of school buses that shuttled to the parking lot. As an exhibitor, I was allowed to park my rental car behind my booth.

After Hansen had buttoned up the Sabre and I had packed up my booth, I saw him kind of wandering around the beautiful Cold War fighter in indecision. He didn’t have any way out of the infield except to join one of the hundreds-long lineups for a bus. I asked if he’d like a ride with me in the rental and he gratefully accepted.

It turned out he was going to meet his cousin at the terminal and spend the evening with family. It took about a half-hour for us to get back to the terminal and we talked about flying, the Air Force and his profound honor at being selected as an astronaut. It was my honor to spend quality time with such a quality individual.

Now it’s not like we forged any kind of bond. He didn’t even accept my friend request on Facebook and wouldn’t know me to see me. But he certainly left a lasting impression on me. So the perils of space flight considered against a backdrop of exploding rockets come into a little sharper focus when you’ve sweated out an airshow in the southern Ontario humidity with one of the people who will travel on one of those rockets.

So, I hope history repeats itself. I hope the explosions stop and fade into a seemingly distant memory as the Starship system proves itself a capable and reliable way to chip away at mankind’s insatiable need to explore and learn about the cosmos.

And I wish Godspeed to Col. Hansen and all the other profoundly talented and incredibly brave people who are scratching that itch for the rest of us. And thanks for a pleasant afternoon.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Google Douglas DC-x. They were vertically landing rockets 30 years ago. SpaceX is currently NASA circa 1965. Do you think they quit going to the moon and beyond in the early 70s? Or did they just stop telling us about it?

    • Aren’t you supposed to be at your QAnon meeting? The tin foil in your hat is supposed to be shiny side OUT.

      How many manned rockets did NASA blow up in 1965? Hint: None. Zero is a smaller number than 100%.

      And the highest the DC-X ever got — once — was 10,300 feet. When it landed after reaching that non-stratospheric height, it fell over and caught fire and the whole program was cancelled.

      If you want to tell people to Google something, don’t be surprised if they read about it. Perhaps you should, too, before making it a shining example of…something. I guess.

        • That’s one of the worst expressions to have evolved on the internet which is saying a lot.

          Why am I seemingly the only person who thinks it’s vile?

  2. I think we need to do more than just hope the explosions stop. As a simple matter of humanity and compassion, we should demand that every aspect of SpaceX’s 0 for 3 “success” rate be examined by the FAA, NASA, and independent investigators fully qualified to do so before we ask anyone to fly on that thing. This idea that of course business can do a better job than the guvmint in general and NASA in particular also blows up every time one of Elmo’s rockets does. The slurpers who think he can do no wrong are even more wrong than he is. He’s a an out of control megalomaniac and it’s about time SpaceX was told to get rid of him from any management or oversight role or contracts will be cancelled. He’s that vile. He has to go. In manned spaceflight, failure in not an option and success is not defined as clearing the pad and then refusing to call catastrophic failures anything but exactly that.

    • I agree with raytoews. A string of invectives usually indicates ignorance. Elon seems strange, but OWNS the company (42%equity, 79% voting control per Wiki). I doubt he handles much of the design/testing/daily operation.

      This type of development/testing was prevalent in the 50s. There wasn’t much in the way of computer modelling––so just test it to failure, examine the remains, learn, and try again. Lots of widows left behind.

      What that company has accomplished thus far is sufficient to earn them FAA acceptance of their “test-to-destruction” philosophy as long as it can be done safely. It’s a huge step to certify a spacecraft for human occupants.

      Lets sit back and enjoy the show since we are all just spectators anyway.

    • Jeff, You make it very clear that you are one of the 38%. Good luck with that.

      Your wish to Stifle independent American ingenuity at all costs and kowtow to big government to run your life is the socialist’s dream.

  3. My dad passed away unexpectedly 27 Jan 2003 he was part of the greatest generation having joined the US Navy V5 program before the war and winged in Jan 1942. One of my aviation heros, three days later as the family gathered to prepare for service and all the loose ends that a human leaves behind when such things happen. I suggested we turn on the TV to watch the Columbia return for the landing. After all one of my Squadron mates Willy McCool was flying the reentry. It took about 5 seconds watching the evolving situation to figure out that what was happening was unsurvivable. So yes I think we all have a dog in the fight and I hope you never get that experience I had. He was the 25th Naval Aviator that I knew that was lost in pursuit of this glorious mission. God speed to all of them……

  4. Russ, as I sipped on hot chocolate and indulged in pastries, I found your article to be informative, engaging, and well-written. Good morning to you!

  5. Russ, great comments. Space flight is an extension of the early days of aviation. we like to say aviation safety is written in blood, as will be space flight. During the early days of aviation had we wrung our hands and the govt had shut it down every time something failed or someone lost their life we would definitely not be enjoying the freedom to travel we now do.
    Space ships will blow up,,,, and yes people will die. Thank ___ for people like Elon who are/were willing to risk their reputations/lives to advance aviation/space travel.

  6. The progress of humanity is written in blood. It always will be. It is the bold and adventurous who will seek new horizons and go where no human has gone before.

  7. It took SpaceX 8 tries to land a Falcon on land, more to land it on a barge. They flew multiple commercial Sat/Cargo flights before the first human flights.

    It took 5(? too lazy to look up) tries to land starship and now 3 fully stacked tests with ever increasing success. Space is *hard* and what SpaceX is attempting to do with Starship/Super heavy is a step above hard. I hope the FAA takes a step back from the intensity of their post investigations as no one has been injured or died in these tests. SpaceX needs these tests to not just meet NASA’s Artimis goal, they need it for the ability to put 150+ tons…*tons* of stuff into LEO and beyond.

    If there is a concern, Starship does not have redundancies for failures and that needs to be worked out. Relying on engine relit to safely land either stage means 100% working 100% of the time. Given human imperfections, what happens when they don’t. We saw Stage one slam into the gulf at close to Mach.

    Heat shielding is another as again demonstrated in Ship’s reentry. Tiles were falling off right and left and an Ass first attitude did not help. SpaceX will need to come up with a heat shield that will not fail and that will take putting a Ship in orbit.

    SpaceX made incredible progress with Test3. I cannot wait for test 4, but if offered ride on the first human certified…yeah I think I’ll hold of a bit.

    • Yeah, reentry is a bitch. But at least they do now have redundant engines burning for all or part of the landing. This was done due to a relight failure.

  8. Gee Russ:

    You remind me of the nightly news with the misinformation and sensationalism in this article! And after last week scolding yourself for NOT putting out certain information that you weren’t sure was credible.

    “All three test flights ended in massive explosions, but test two’s rapid unplanned disassembly happened much later in the flight than the first and the third actually almost completed the mission.” The “massive explosions of OFT 1/2 were the flight termination system destroying the vehicle before it could go too far off course and HURT SOMEONE! With respect to OFT 3, really? The booster went in the ocean like it was planned to do albeit not quite as slowly as planned due to two engines not relighting as planned. The Starship burned up during atmospheric re-entry, again not quite as planned but a few more UNMMANNED test flights and SpaceX will figure it out.

    “I haven’t decided if he’s irritatingly smug or smugly irritating but he has definitely chafed his way to the top.” You sound as if this guy irritates you? Have you decided that because the guy is rich and successful that you, (like the rest of the mainstream media who started demonizing him after he bought twitter) now dislike him and are making up excuses why you think he shouldn’t be allowed to do what he does? Chaffed his way to the top? You think he got to where he was by making a lot of noise? or rubbing people the wrong way? Before he bought twitter he was the darling of the leftwing media and tree huggers, champions of noise making for nebulous causes! Musk DELIVERS THE GOODS!

    “But rather than join the cheer squad of optimists hyping the “progress” of the test program, I have growing discomfort in the pit of my stomach.” So does that mean your joining the pessimists who think that it can’t be made to work or, because everything has not worked perfectly the first few times, you think it can’t be made to work in the future?

    But at the end of the article you note: “So, I hope history repeats itself. I hope the explosions stop and fade into a seemingly distant memory as the Starship system proves itself a capable and reliable way to chip away at mankind’s insatiable need to explore and learn about the cosmos.” So YOU DO want SpaceX to be successful?! Or is this just the modern media style that begins an article with the sensationalist half truth and ends with what really happened at the end of article on page 27. That style is really getting OLD Russ.

    I’ve read so much media that has sensational (and often untrue) headlines (to suck you in followed by nothing burgers or click bait) that I’m really tired of this kind of writing style. Ya, Flying media now likely wants you to make more money for them and so you have to come up with this kind of stuff in order to try and draw more readers and hence more advertising dollars. Just one reason I come to have a grave dislike for media corporations and the modern “reporter” that works for them! Or do you just think your being amusing and cute with this style?

    Just a reminder, Blue Origin had a lot less UNMANNED test flights in its little suborbital rocket before taking up famous celebrities. Did those manned flights give you discomfort in the pit of your stomach (after all there would have been massive press coverage, including yours, and misinformation if one of those had blown up)?

    • Dean, you’re reading a whole lot more here than Russ wrote. This is a nice piece of editorial writing. Life is a lot easier when you realize that you don’t have to agree with everyone on everything.

  9. Russ,

    I highly recommend you and your readers watch the movie “The Right Stuff”.

    Fast forward through the Hollywood drama and acting, and there’s a nice compilation of actual NASA videos of all kinds of (what were to be manned) rocket failures.

    You’ll be absolutely shocked that NASA was allowed to continue research and testing and that we made it to the moon with so many failures.

  10. Another good article Russ. Too bad it doesn’t elicit much comment from readers. Same problem for Capt. Garrison, but try and keep them coming for the “Old Cranks Club”

  11. It’s these damn airplanes that scare me. Every time you get one you could die if one little thing goes wrong. I’d never get in one of those deathtraps if I didn’t like skydiving so much.

  12. The NASA – old aerospace – US Congress complex has the following priority list:
    1) Jobs to keep congressmen in office.
    2) Oceans of money to keep the aerospace companies flush.
    3) No embarrassments in the news.
    And if a space mission takes place, then all the better.

    Space X has one priority: go to space.

    How many decades do you think the legacy process and actors would have taken to produce a reusable heavy lift rocket? 4? 5? 10?

    Human-rating is another question that obviously requires a change in approach, but for development of basic technology the facts have spoken — “try it and see what breaks” is many times faster than “try to think of everything up front”.

    As a designer, I’d rather take a working but fallible system and find and fix the weak points than start from nothing and try to create perfection the first time.

  13. “There’s a fine line between a bomb and a rocket. The finer the line, the better the rocket….”

  14. Reminds of a quote by Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s excellent documentary/interview film “In the Shadow of the Moon”. Lovell and the other astronauts had been watching several failed launch attempts (spectacular failed launch attempts) and to paraphrase, he said something like “It seemed like an excellent way to have a short career.” Yet, he and the others stayed with the program. Thank God for such people!

  15. FWIW, as perverse as it seems, I feel that exploding Starships is a marketing ploy. After all, if you have enough $ to eventually stop the explosions, you remove the fear in the public mind that there’s an explosive demon in the system somewhere.

  16. Musk is quite obviously autistic; you’ll find that expressiveness in many with that condition.

  17. The big question remains – what is the taxpayer ROI on any space travel, now or 50 years ago? Our nation’s debt is approaching $35T. If there is any value in space flight, manned or unmanned, let the private sector pay for it. And that includes the cost of using taxpayer launch facilities. I doubt it would survive long without taxpayer support.

  18. Interesting key points:

    SpaceX Starship program: achieving escape velocity one fiery explosion at a time.
    Russ Niles contemplates the existential question: is this the future of space travel, or just a very expensive hobby for a particularly enthusiastic pyrotechnician?
    Niles’ astronaut friend, Colonel Jeremy Hansen, ponders the same question, but with a slightly more personal stake in the answer.
    Commentators are divided: some want the FAA to put a leash on SpaceX, while others see the explosions as the thrilling soundtrack to innovation.
    Elon Musk, as always, inspires strong opinions. Arrogant genius? Visionary madman? Or maybe just a guy who really likes fireworks?
    Then there’s that age-old adage that perfectly captures the essence of rocket science: “There’s a fine line between a bomb and a rocket. The finer the line, the better the rocket…”
    Overall, the article explores the age-old tension between pushing boundaries and, well, blowing things up. Some things, it seems, never change.

    • Both ways eventually can succeed, and both can create a lot of issues by failing along the way. Which way works best in any given situation is up to so many factors that it often gets decided simply based on bias. My bias often reverts to my upbringing as I think is normal. By the time I left the military, I had figured out that incentives aren’t the only thing, but they are most often the most important thing. And, they are not all economic.
      Musk has lots of incentives to do the fastest and overall most economic thing while also having good incentives not to let anyone get hurt. NASA actually does not, and a lot of them do not really understand that. I think the NASA folks, and there tribe, have a natural and understandable reaction to the SpaceX way. People on both sides too often don’t try to be very understanding about the other side.
      Just like you said, some things never change.

  19. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Go sit on your couch and watch the grass grow. I cheer SpaceX for trying (and doing).

  20. Had SpaceX intended, they could have put 100 tons into orbit and then done what every rocket before falcon 9 and the space shuttle did: dropped the first and second stages in the ocean. (Paraphrasing Eric Berger of Ars Technica.)
    The first flight of the space shuttle had astronauts on board. The second flight of SLS will have astronauts on board.
    Crew Demo-2, the first crewed SpaceX mission, was the 85th flight of the Falcon 9. And the 20-somethingth flight of the Dragon capsule.
    I expect to see a similar number of Starship flights before anyone climbs onboard. So I’m not worried at all.