Friday, February 01, 2013

Spaceflight Is Risky

Today we pay honor to 17 astronauts.

  • On January 27, 1967, Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire. 
  • On January 28, 1986, Astronauts Michael J. Smith, Richard Scobee, Ronald McNair, Christine McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnick died in the Space Shuttle Challenger.
  • On February 1, 2003, Astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla,  David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Roman died in the Space Shuttle Columbia.

These men and women were pushing the envelope of human capability.  Space flight, they knew, was and is risky.  NASA and the nation will honor these men and women, the risk takers, with various ceremonies today.  It is only natural to wonder, how do we honor their legacy?

It sounds dumb, it sounds cheesy, but make sure their effort is not the end of manned spaceflight.  We have to continue to push the boundaries.  Pushing the boundaries of any human endeavor is risky, it may involve death.  But human progress does not occur without human pain.

As Rand Simburg points out, NASA's mission is not safety, it is space exploration and scientific discovery in space:

It has been a century since the Panama Canal was completed. It was the greatest transportation project of its time, made possible only by new technologies such as dynamite. After Americans took over its construction, more than 5,000 died building the canal. That's more fatalities than we had in the Iraq War. 
Why was the project deemed worthy of expending so many lives? It is not because we didn't value them. Casualties under American leadership of the project were a fraction of the deaths in previous efforts. It is because monumental achievements are at the edge of our human abilities and our best technologies. Nevertheless, such efforts are worth the cost. 
In Panama, the sacrifice paid off, as travel distance (and time) for freight between the East and West Coasts fell from 14,000 to 6,000 miles. It also slashed the cost of shipping to Europe and Asia, resulting in rising economic growth and helping usher in a new age of globalization. 
It's just one example of the benefits of opening up new frontiers and trade routes; thousands died exploring and settling the New World half a millennium ago. Even at the time of the Panama Canal's completion, crossing the Atlantic from Europe to America wasn't yet "safe." Fifteen hundred people died on the Titanic just the year before the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mingled in Panama in 1913. 
At times, we seem to have forgotten. In the 21st century, do we still see exploring and opening up new territory as worth the expenditure of, or even the risk to, human life?

for me the answer has to be yes.  We have to push the envelope, we have to reach for new discovery.  While not everyone has the knowledge, skill, training and yes courage, to be an astronaut, it does not mean that we should stop reaching for the stars.  I suspect that there will never be a shortage of people willing to take the risks of going to space, of doing new things and we, as a nation, we as a human race, should be embracing that spirit of adventure.
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