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Fostering innovation in space travel is all about striking a delicate balance. On one hand, it’s only natural to want to push the envelope, transcending the limits of what mankind previously thought possible. That’s the mentality that put the first man on the moon. On the other hand, safety is absolutely essential. No one wants to put astronauts’ lives in danger. According to The Washington Post, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one of the leading forces behind 21st century space exploration, but the company is having trouble finding that balance between innovation and safety.
Musk and his team have been hard at work optimizing their “Falcon 9” rocket, and their latest idea is a super-cold propellant that will fit more easily into fuel tanks. It’s a great idea, but it also happens to come with a major risk: extreme temperatures could potentially cause an explosion while astronauts are onboard the craft. The more powerful rocket might have unprecedented capabilities (a Mars landing is one possibility) but the risk is making government officials think twice about embracing it.
“NASA is supposed to be a risk-taking organization,” USC professor Greg Autry told The Washington Post. “But every time we would mention accepting risk in human spaceflight, the NASA people would say, ‘But, oh, you have to remember the scar tissue.’ They were talking about the two shuttle disasters.”
Autry refers, of course, to NASA’s loss of 14 astronauts’ lives combined in its two failed space shuttle missions—the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003. The last thing anyone wants to see is more deaths due to space travel. Concerns about the Falcon 9 have been running high ever since September 2016, when one such rocket blew up during fueling for an engine test. NASA officials couldn’t help but think: What if astronauts had been board?
For Musk, one of the great innovators of our time, solving this dilemma will be a key challenge moving forward. There’s a great deal of hope that Silicon Valley technology can fuel the next major breakthrough in space travel, but at what cost?