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5 Traditions for Exploring Technology


3
Failure
Two X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) are shown to members of the news media at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-45A was developed by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Boeing Company.
Two X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) are shown to members of the news media at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-45A was developed by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Boeing Company.
David McNew/Getty Images

No one likes to fail, but your tax dollars go to support a whole lot of it. No, we're not talking about Congress. We're talking about DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency. DARPA is part of the Department of Defense and takes on high-risk, high-reward projects. Of course, a lot of those projects fail. Others, however, pay off in big ways. DARPA work developed much of the Internet and GPS system we use today. It's also getting pretty close to developing driverless cars.

To DARPA and innovators everywhere, failure isn't the end of a project. It's a necessary step, one that can teach just as much as success. While success feels good, we often learn more from failure.

In August of 2011, DARPA failed in a public way. The agency was working on a hypersonic aircraft – one that could fly from New York to L.A. in about 12 minutes. The unmanned Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 or HTV-2 could travel at 20 times the speed of sound (that's about 13,000 mph). The goal of the project is to develop a craft that could be anywhere in the world in an hour, allowing for fast military strikes. On Aug. 12, DARPA launched its test vehicle on a Minotaur 4 rocket. The idea was that the craft would go into suborbital space, and then glide back into the Earth's atmosphere before entering the Pacific Ocean.

About 20 minutes after launch, DARPA lost contact with the HTV-2. Failure? Well, DARPA didn't meet the goal of the operation, but it did learn more about how hypersonic flight works, and it can apply those lessons to the next test. To put the failure in perspective, the HTV-1 lost contact with DARPA after only nine minutes. In just the second launch, DAPRA more than doubled the time was in control of the vehicle.


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