Space exploration needs more antifragility. For those unfamiliar with the concept of antifragility, (this includes the word processor I’m using) here the quick definition from the appropriately titled book, Antifragile:
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
If the spectrum from fragile to antifragile were like the rainbow, with antifragility on the violet side, the standard spacecraft would fall in the land of bright, pulsing red. They have literally been likened to museum pieces that we delicately place on the self (orbit) and then take a deep breath, step away, and hope nothing unexpected happens. Think of the two space shuttle disasters or any of a slew of other spacecraft failures – one small unaccounted-for factor raises it’s head (a chipped cracked tile, metric-to-english conversions) and billions of dollars or worse, human lives, are lost.
This way of doing things cannot continue if space flight is to expand beyond its current scope. Something will break. The spacecraft we build now are like the Death Star – glorious sterile shrines to engineering prowess – that come to a shuttering end from any disturbance to the tiny chink in their armor. Instead, we should move towards making spacecraft like the Millennium Falcon – when a part breaks (all too frequently) the replacement is often actually an upgrade, making the ship far more awesome than when it rolled off of the manufacturing line.
The interesting and unanswered question is how does one make spacecraft truly antifragile? Material that absorbs micrometeorite impacts to become stronger? A radiation shield that generates energy for the protected crew? It’s both exciting and hard to puzzle out how to benefit from unknown unknowns.
Update 6/1/2013. This is exactly the sort of fragility that rears its head all the time under the current space technology paradigm.