[LINK] Shuttle crash

Robin Whittle rw@firstpr.com.au
Sun, 02 Feb 2003 04:28:13 +1100


Despite whatever people may say about it being a waste of money, I have
a very strong emotional feeling for men and women who go into space. 
They are risking their lives for the benefit of others.  No matter what
the motivations of governments in funding space programs for political
or military gain, the individuals who fly go as pioneers in dangerous
places for the benefit of humanity and other lifeforms in general.

I find it particularly sad when the best and finest people die, in the
crafts which are the very peak of what humanity has been able to
construct - whether it be the Titanic, the Space Shuttle, or the Apollo
mission, where three astronauts on the ground were killed in a fire
fuelled by 100% oxygen.   I think the Russians have lost some cosmonauts
too.  I regret to say I don't know as much about their losses as the
Western ones.

The fault may well be found after the event, by those not killed, to be
completely avoidable stupidity, rather than good engineering really
being at its limits.   For the Titanic, it was stupidity regarding
icebergs and thinking the ship unsinkable etc. as well as being in a
hurry to cross the Atlantic.   As Richard Feynman documented in "Surely
your Joking" I think, human stupidity caused the Challenger explosion. 
This was the organisational failure of insisting the Shuttle was safe,
believing that if it was admitted not to be, that Congress would kill
the project.   Organisational failure prevented engineers from halting
the launch when they seriously suspected the cold conditions of the
Challenger launch would cause a rubber O-ring in the solid-fuel boosters
to fail, and so destroy the entire craft.

Astronauts and cosmonauts take real risks.  Cars and jet aircraft are
bad enough.  Rockets, orbit, radiation, meteorites, space-junk and
re-entry are seriously wild and risky things.   The forces, speeds and
distances dwarf frail humanity even more so than ships and aircraft.

I feel very bad when the craft which represent the crystalisation of
hundred of thousands of human life-times' effort, and which have the job
of taking people safely into space, or across the ocean, fail
catastrophically and kill all those on board.  I think it doesn't mean
we should stop doing these things.  But we need to learn to avoid the
organisational stupidity which caused the Titanic and Challenger
disasters.  Engineering problems and natural occurrences are bad enough!

I think this is a special time to remember the gutsiness of those who do
travel into space, and to marvel at the fact that the Space Shuttle, and
spaceflight in general - and commercial aviation especially - has been
as safe as it has.


The IMAX cinemas in Melbourne and Sydney are showing "Space Station
3D".  I have seen it twice and I think it is really wonderful.  Its a
technical, flight-based film with an absolutely gripping sense of being
in the Shuttle and rocketing skywards bolted to the world's largest,
unstoppable, skyrockets.   But it is much more.  I find it a really
moving human account of people, exploration, co-operation in a new and
dangerous place, and bridging long-standing barriers of sex, language
and politics.

Yesterday I walked past the house where I was having dinner when the
Challenger explosion came on the telly.   Tonight, I was writing to the
Evolutionary Psychology mailing list when I checked my email, and had a
sinking feeling when I saw Stephen Loosley's Link message.  Its not a
happy association, because I will always remember you name in this
context, but thanks Stephen for posting this to Link.   

   - Robin