Researchers reveal their epic fails

Even a rocket explosion can’t stop ultimate scientific success


Every scientist has had a failure or two in the lab.


Scientists might seem like they’ve got it all together. They send missions to Mars, study dead bodies and handle swarms of live bees like it’s just another day in the lab.

But every scientist faces a challenge of one kind or another. Some may have trouble getting their career started. “I got into college, and I didn’t do well and I had to drop out. That was pretty hard on my self-esteem,” says Jeanette Newmiller. She tried other jobs, but without a college degree, she couldn’t do the work she really wanted. So Newmiller tried again. “It took a long time to finally get back to college, and I had to make some sacrifices now to do it,” she says. “I’m really excited to move on and get the kind of job I know I can do well.” Newmiller is now a water resources engineer at the University of California, Davis.   

Sometimes, work literally blows up in your face. That’s what happened to Mark Holdridge. He’s an aerospace engineer at NASA. (That’s short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) His group had launched a spacecraft that was supposed to fly by a series of comets. Several weeks after launch, there was an incident, and “the spacecraft didn’t survive,” he recalls. “It really taught me just how tenuous all this is. You can work on something for years and be very disappointed in the end…. No one wants to fail.” Holdridge and his team went through a dark time. But, he says, “we did rise from that and do other great missions.” Now’s he’s worked on missions to orbit asteroids and explore Pluto.

Newmiller and Holdridge are two of the scientists profiled in our Cool Jobs series who shared their greatest failures with the Science News for Students audience. Listen to the full playlist to hear about their and other scientists’ toughest times — and how they bounced back.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.