Fresh Air in the Discussion of Risk -- SpaceX

I have to admit I often moan and groan when companies quoted in the press make stupid statements about uncertainty, or reveal that their decision making is horribly risk averse to the detriment of their shareholders/stakeholders. Conversely, I feel almost obligated to note the occasion when a business leader speaks intelligently about risk. In this case that would be Elon Musk of SpaceX.

In an effort to increase the reusability of spacecraft and thus reduce the cost of space flight, SpaceX is attempting to soft land the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean, a feat they compare to “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm”.

According to a recent New York Times article, Musk puts the odds at no better than 50%, but noting that SpaceX can try again on each of several upcoming launches, goes on to say:

“I think it’s quite likely, 80 to 90 percent likely, that one of those flights will be able to land and refly.”

Culturally, it obviously helps that everyone knows SpaceX is doing something hard – in this case, hard in the sense of physics and engineering. But other businesses face long odds in such mundane earthbound activities as new product development and even manufacturing, but seldom are they willing to talk about it outside the footnotes of their financial disclosures, and never in clear quantitative terms.

The launch attempt is tomorrow – let’s all wish them good luck. But it sounds like they’ve already made a good decision about the series of attempts.

UPDATE: Not this time. Sounds like they were close. Maybe we’ll get a Bayesian update on the probability of a soft landing next time.