When a SpaceX rocket explodes, they call it an “anomaly”

SpaceX tested its crew capsule’s abort system on Saturday and it exploded. They described it as an “anomaly.” Is that accurate or misleading?

SpaceX designed the crew capsule so it could send astronauts into space (so far it has only carried cargo). The system it tested on Saturday was for the “inflight abort” — a system that allows the capsule to fly away from the rest of the rocket in an emergency. (A similar system saved two astronauts during a Russian Soyuz launch last year.) Because it’s got rockets in it, SpaceX has to test it. Here’s a video of what happened.

I think you’d have to call that an explosion.

Here’s how SpaceX described it in a statement:

Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand. Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reason why we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners.

Anomaly or explosion?

Look at this from SpaceX’s point of view. It was only a test. No one was injured; no one was in the capsule. All the tests until the last one went fine. When you’re testing rockets, there are probably a lot of explosions, but with the right instrumentation, you can learn from them. So, sure, I imagine that this is not a completely unexpected occurrence. In fact, you could argue that without failed tests like this, you’d never know where to find the problems in a system like this.

An anomaly is something that deviates the normal or expected course of events. But more than that, it’s something that otherwise defies classification. (On Star Trek they’re always talking about anomalies, which there means “a confusing thingy that’s not like anything we’ve seen before.”) If you can classify an anomaly, you should use a different word.

This “anomaly” isn’t hard to classify. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’d classify it as an explosion.

Of course, SpaceX doesn’t wan’t to use the words “crew” and “explosion” anywhere in proximity to each other, even when nobody was in danger during the test.

Not calling things what they are backfires

In a Streisand Effect-like twist, using obviously evasive euphemisms generate more coverage of a problem like this. And sure enough, Google News reports 69,000 articles about the “anomaly,” including Time, Popular Mechanics, and the Los Angeles Times. The YouTube video has 100,000 views. Calling it an “anomaly” isn’t damping down worries, it’s inflaming them.

If you are making a statement about a problem, call it what it is. Avoid obviously evasive euphemisms. Your euphemisms may not explode on the launch pad, but they’re likely to backfire — so why use them at all?

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  1. I am a bona fide Rocket Scientist who helped design ascent trajectories for unstaffed launch vehicles. Meaning, I planned the vehicle’s path from launch pad to releasing the satellite in space. “Anomaly” is exactly the word used in the industry to describe an event that is outside of the acceptable tolerance of performance, especially if it results in the loss of the vehicle, payload, or crew. For example (pulling a number out of thin air), thrust within 2% of the predicted amount might be deemed okay, but a wider deviance higher or lower (such as 3% low or 4% high) is an “anomaly.” Don’t let the coldness of the term throw you. It’s a classification, not a poetic description. In some ways the term helps the people diagnosing the issue stay calm and focused in the face of what could be a fatal situation. Of course if crew members were aboard it would be a tragedy to lose their lives, and that is never taken lightly by designers nor mission control personnel.

  2. Hi Josh, and everybody,

    My interpretation is that the note addresses the cause, an anomaly whose origin must be determined, and not so much the consequence, which is obvious.