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Fail Faster

In the current educational system, students are taught to succeed at all costs—get the best grades, study all night, give up your life for school. We have created a society where failure is not an option—you either win or you lose. There is no middle ground, no room for error, and no honor in failing.

The Quest for Space program turns this thinking on its head with an understanding that failure can be the quickest path toward success. In fact, they are encouraged to fail faster, as greater failure leads to greater success in the design process of their experiments. When Thomas Edison was asked about the failure of his lightbulb experiment he allegedly replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Just so, the design process of the ISS experiments allows teams to improve their work with every failure—with each model, they eliminate how not to build their experiment, and thus improve their next design.

Similar to professional research experiments, teams closely follow an engineering design process to define a problem, evaluate a solution, and test that solution in microgravity. The first portion of design—defining a problem—entails detailed research in various scientific fields, following different platforms, scientific journals, and other related experiments.

In addition to defining a problem that the experiments will address, teams primarily focus on evaluating the solution to that problem through designing flow charts and block diagrams. Sometimes teams collaborate with universities, like Cal, to design and build their experiments, giving further collegiate level research development and experience. This design process is one of the most crucial and time-consuming elements of the experiment, since it requires constant adaptation and revision of methods and layout, developed through constant failure. The first step of constructing the design itself is drawing a block diagram. This block diagram typically consists of the electrical components of the experiment, representing how the design should work without size specifications or exact scaling. Other models, like fluid diagrams and chamber diagrams, are also drawn up to outline the water-based components and various chambers in a coherent and intuitive way.

After the block diagram is complete, through many failures and adjustments, teams move on to the mechanical part of the design phase. This adds more complexity and specifications to the final block diagram to produce a conceptual version of the experiment that will, eventually, be built and sent to space. The mechanical plan requires in-depth knowledge of each part used in the schematics, thus many students consult their mechanical lead in this phase. The mechanical lead is an experienced student a part of the Quest for Space program, who has previously participated in experiments themselves. Their experience allows them a leadership role in their area of expertise, developing valued character traits of leadership and collaboration in both the mechanical lead themself and those they advise.

The last part of the design process, after choosing an experiment, drawing block diagrams, and developing a mechanical design, is building the experiment with the specifications created in the design portion. This area is the primary focus of the electrical and software specialists, as they finalize the plans and construct the physical experiment.

Though many students may be drawn to the gravity-defying aspect of the Quest for Space program, participants also get the opportunity to defy the societal norms of our success-based educational system to work in a merit-based atmosphere that thrives on failure. ​While success is essential to an experiment, students learn that failure is too, because, without failure, we may never reach our fullest potential and fulfill our ultimate Mission for Space.

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