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When launching student designed and built rockets, failure is always an option. But so is spectacular success. Photo by Phil Houseal

Rockets 2014 will take place Thursday through Sunday, May 15–18, 2014, at Stewart’s Hillview Ranch, located north of Fredericksburg off the Willow City Loop. Event is free, but visitors are required to register online at www.systemsgo.org for access to the launch area. Information at www.systemsgo.org, info@systemsgo.org, (830) 997-3567.


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Failure and The Long Run

by Phil Houseal


Over the next four days in a field about 13 miles north of Fredericksburg, several hundred high school students are going to be taking a test.

It won’t be a paper and pencil kind of test, although hours of calculation will have been completed.

It won’t be a “do I get out of high school” or “get into college” test. Although futures will be changed.

It won’t be a test where success is guaranteed. In fact, many if not most will experience failure along the way.

The event is Rockets 2014, the culminating activity for the SystemsGo Aeroscience program. This innovative project-based curriculum was developed in the 1990s by Brett Williams and others at Fredericksburg High School. Today, about 50 Texas high schools participate. Students from 30 of those schools will be sending 80 rockets up to three miles high and beyond the speed of sound. That’s 767 mph for you guys that didn’t pay attention in 5th grade science.

A state education magazine did a story on what a nonparticipating school’s administrator dismissed as “that little rocket program” and decided to title it Failure is an Option. That was the perfect title, and it fits what I’ve been thinking about failure lately.

Seth Godin, a popular business blogger, recently set forth the idea that being “good at the beginning” is not as important at being “good in the long run.”

Whether a toddler learning to walk, a beginner violinist, or a non-science type student trying to build a rocket, “the people who are good in the long run fail a lot, especially at the beginning. So, when you fail early, it might be worth realizing that this is part of the deal, the price you pay for being good in the long run.”

These rocket kids fail a lot. Over the many years of sending up their “one pound, one mile” rockets, we’ve seen rockets that never leave the pad, don’t deploy a chute, blow up in mid flight, or plant themselves firmly in the Texas topsoil like a fencepost with fins.

And you know what? That’s all right. Godin declares, “Every rejection is a gift. A chance to learn and to do it better next time.”

Why is this important? Because as we survey the educational landscape, we see fewer and fewer opportunities where our kids can fail safely. This is not just in schools, but on playgrounds where no one ever gets hurt, sports leagues where no one ever loses, and bureaucracies where no one ever gets fired.

And yet this rocket program, where you can fail–in sometimes spectacular ways–continues to grow and draw more teachers, students, and schools that relish the challenge of facing uncertain outcomes.

I know, because I’ve experienced it firsthand. My daughter is now in Brett Williams’ rocket class. She will be a senior, and has attended several schools through her career. But last fall, when her class was designing their first rocket, she did something that had never happened before: she got excited about what she was learning. On that day at noon, she sent me a video of her launch, complete with a description of what worked and what didn’t–the motor burned through the recovery tether, so the nose cone blew off. She was thrilled.


That evening, she rushed in the door and sat down to describe every detail of the flight with the thoroughness of Mission Control, from launch to recovery. Well... attempted recovery.

Failure examined.

Most important, she had started figuring out ways to avoid burning through the string on her next launch. In fact she had already contacted a former rocket student (her brother) to brainstorm workarounds.

Failure solved, leading to success.

These failures are precious. As Godin calls them: “An opportunity to figure out how to bounce, not break. Don't waste them.”

Because where you land is more important than where you launch. And the long run is a lot longer than you can imagine.