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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Overcoming Space Obstacles

Regarding the explosion of Antares and the crash of SpaceShipTwo last week, Bob Robinson e-mails:

I was discussing the two latest tragedies related to space travel with a co-worker, and an article questioning whether the space program could survive two accidents in close succession came up. He and I are in complete agreement that this was a rather stupid question to ask.

When men first set out in boats, some of them died – and people continue to die in boating accidents and shipwrecks. When horse-drawn carriages were invented, there were failures of all sorts (wheels coming off, etc.) that resulted in serious injuries and death. After the invention of steam locomotives, some of them blew up, killing the crew. Eventually, trains derailed, killing crews and passengers. After the invention of the automobile there were, and continue to be (in great numbers!) wrecks of all sort – some caused by mechanical failure, but most due to human error. We have had passenger planes for nearly a century, with thousands of deaths resulting from crashes.

With every new mode of transportation comes the risk of injury and death from ‘accidents’ (I put accidents in quotes because I don’t believe in them. Incidents are caused by inattention and/or hurry). I’m sure there were always those who felt that each new transportation method was too dangerous, and should be abandoned. Fortunately, there were many more who knew that the correct response was to analyze the incidents and learn from the causes. We learned how to make boats more stable and sea-worthy, but the oceans and seas are incredibly powerful, making a truly unsinkable vessel a near impossibility (aside from rescue boats, apparently. Those things are amazing!), but we keep trying. Safety valves helped to prevent boiler explosions on locomotives, but they still can’t protect you from human error and negligence. We have improved the safety of motorized vehicles by several orders of magnitude over the Model T, but people continue to do stupid things behind the wheels of them and injure, maim, and kill their fellow humans – sometimes intentionally. We haven’t banned motorcycles, cars, buses, and trucks just because they can be used to mow people down. Our ability to analyze every available detail and piece of debris from plane crashes, along with the invention of flight data and cockpit voice recorders has allowed engineers to determine the causes of most crashes, and, in some cases, correct design flaws. In others, we have learned that the old bugaboo of human error was to blame, and in some of these cases improved training procedures can prevent these errors.

The point these "critics" fail to either realize or understand, is that we have never given up on an important new mode of transportation. We strive to improve upon them, and make them as safe as possible or reasonable. If this weren't the case, we would all either be walking, riding horses, or driving Model Ts that are horribly unsafe for large numbers of people. If we haven’t given up on other modes of transportation, why should we give up on space flight?
Bob is absolutely right -- and let's not forget all the mishaps that occurred in the space program before we got Alan Shepherd up there in 1961, with launch vehicles exploding on the pad or barely lifting off. Then there was the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and Columbia explosions, and others. Fortunately, none of them stopped our efforts to explore -- although I wish we were doing more and going further -- and the latest two incidents shouldn't be obstacles we can't overcome.