ASK OCE — March 17, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 6
Nobody understood better than the legendary Dr. Wernher Von Braun that mistakes are an unavoidable fact of life in aerospace development.
Von Braun made a point of encouraging his team members to be forthcoming about their mistakes. In an anecdote that he recalled in a 1956 article in Missiles and Rockets, one of the early Redstone missile tests failed at a precise point once in flight. After isolating the part of the rocket likely to have produced the failure, the technical team considered many possible explanations, none of which seemed quite right. They settled on one explanation and began planning corrective action to remedy it.
At this point an engineer who had been part of the pre-launch team called Von Braun and arranged to visit his office. He told Von Braun that during the pre-launch checks he had drawn a spark while tightening a contact with a screwdriver. The system had performed well in ground tests after the spark, so he thought nothing of the incident. But after learning about the failure investigation and the planned corrective action, he decided to tell Von Braun about the spark just in case his story might prove relevant.
A quick check revealed that the engineer’s admission did in fact explain the failure, and Von Braun halted the changes to the rocket. He then sent the engineer a bottle of Champagne to reward him for his honesty, which had required the engineer to admit his own culpability. As Von Braun related in his article, “Absolute honesty is something you simply cannot afford to dispense with in a team effort as difficult as that of missile development.” He insisted on the same principle in his subsequent work on spacecraft at Marshall Space Flight Center.