Good Failure Versus Bad Failure

One widespread conviction in Silicon Valley is that failure is something to be celebrated, in the sense that failure is a requirement for success. Good VCs and entrepreneurs learn from their failures, the story goes, and (ideally) go on to create great successes.

There’s even an annual conference in San Francisco that celebrates failure — Failcon (“Embrace Your Mistakes. Build Your Success.”)

So I was startled to hear that new NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun plans to have the space agency celebrate failure. NASA has had some spectacular failures — the explosion of the Challenger, the disintegration of the Shuttle Columbia — that killed several people, but that isn’t the kind of failure he’s talking about.

Braun says he wants to push new innovative projects at NASA (which generally have a high rate of failure) and accept failure the way Google does. He also wants to hire 100 young “fresh-outs” at each NASA center each year — that’s 1,000 new graduates a year — to work on new ideas.

In April, he told a NASA interviewer, there were two failures: DARPA got a hypersonic glider to fly at Mach 20 before they lost control of the vehicle over the Pacific; and NASA crashed a balloon, which was carrying a telescope, in Australia.

According to news reports, the balloon destroyed one car and bounced off a second car. No one was injured.

Here’s what Braun had to say about those incidents:

The newspaper headline was, “DARPA breaks world speed record.” Further down, the article talked about how the mission was a failure. Around that same time, NASA had a balloon crash in Australia. That was a headline story on CNN.

Admittedly, there was a fairly dramatic video of the balloon crash— that’s part of the reason it got hyped in the media. We are just now beginning to investigate the specifics of that particular failure. Was it a failure because we were attempting to take too large a step or because we made a mistake? In my view, if it was a failure because we were taking a large step, that should be acceptable.

…I intend to celebrate failure. Not because we made a metric-to-English conversion error. Failure because we went after a large goal, made progress, and did all the right things, but didn’t quite make it to that goal. I’m sure they’re celebrating in DARPA today because they flew a Mach-20 vehicle. Did they succeed in their objectives? Absolutely not.

For an agency that is considering working with VCs, this is a positive step, although investors who are used to working with Web startups may have to adjust their ideas about failure.

In this dramatic ABC News video of the balloon crash, a reporter describes the passengers in the cars hit by the NASA balloon as “running for their lives.”