Monday, February 3, 2014

For Explorers, Failure Is More Than an Option

The Columbia disaster was 11 years ago this past Saturday. I was visiting family in Florida, not far from the Kennedy Space Center, when the deadly events unfolded 40 miles over East Texas. As a newly assigned breaking news liaison between the Washington Post's print and digital newsrooms, I rushed to the space center, where NASA's very first space shuttle had been scheduled to land that morning before it was torn to pieces during reentry at 18 times the speed of sound.

The following day, after hosting an online Q&A with Post readers, I was talking with one of the beleaguered but unflappable staffers manning the space agency's press room. Many of the journalists who had been there to cover the landing were already decamping for Houston, where the investigation was centered. The press person asked me if I had ever been to Kennedy for a launch. I said I had been to the space center many times and written a lot about NASA over the years, but I had never actually attended a liftoff.

"You'll have to come back," she said -- enough sad determination in her voice to express certainty that the launchpads on the edge of the Atlantic three miles away from us would be used again.

The shuttles did indeed fly again -- 22 more missions before the program was closed down in 2011. And I kept my word to that staffer, assigning myself to cover the second to last shuttle flight when I was an editor at NPR.

"There is no risk-free activity, and to imagine that we can open up space without human casualties is a delusion that could prevent it from happening," wrote Rand Simberg on the opinion page of last Friday's USA Today. Simberg is an aerospace engineer and the author of Safe Is Not an Option. He continued:
"If we are serious about commercializing space and doing serious (and dangerous) things, such as establishing human space settlements, diverting deadly asteroids or going to Mars, it would likely seem not only acceptable but expected that some of the settlers and asteroid wranglers would die."
Can we live with those deaths?

In the software and web development industries, "fail fast" has become a bit of a buzzy mantra. Political reality makes that a difficult principle to live by, especially in large-scale, publicly funded endeavors with human consequences, such as space exploration and, say, health care enrollment systems. But the idea of embracing failure has spread from the tech world to other business sectors -- even the change-averse news and media industries.

One of the things that makes risk easier to manage is staying focused on the goal -- the destination.

So what did the seven astronauts aboard Columbia give their lives for -- as well as the other 19 astronauts and cosmonauts who have died so far, either in flight or in mission-related training accidents?

Astronomer Carl Sagan may have left an answer, shortly before his death in 1996, when he recorded a three-minute message to be played for future Mars explorers. (I came across this recoding for the first time a couple of days ago in the archives of Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog. The audio that she posted is embedded below this transcript.):

"This is a place where I often work in Ithaca, New York, near Cornell University. Maybe you can hear in the background a 200-foot waterfall right nearby, which is probably, I would guess, a rarity on Mars even in times of high technology. 
"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century, particularly with respect to Mars. The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it. And a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited and inspired to become scientists to find out more about Mars, which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science. That sequence has played a major role in our present ability to get to Mars. It certainly was an important factor in the life of Robert Goddard, the American rocketry pioneer, who I think more than anyone else paved the way for our actual ability to go to Mars. And it certainly played a role in my scientific development.  
"I don't know why you're on Mars. Maybe you're there because we've recognized we have to carefully move small asteroids around to avert the possibility of one impacting the Earth with catastrophic consequences. And while we're up in near-Earth space it's only a hop, skip and a jump to Mars. Or maybe we're on Mars because we recognize that if there are human communities on many worlds, the chances of us being rendered extinct by some catastrophe on one world is much less. Or maybe we're on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there. The gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Or maybe we're on Mars because we have to be, because there is a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process. We come after all from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9 percent of our tenure on Earth we've been wanderers and the next place to wander to is Mars. 
"But whatever the reason you're on Mars us, I'm glad you're there -- and I wish I was with you."

(The photo above of the setting Moon as seen from Earth orbit was taken by a member of the STS-107 crew aboard Columbia on Jan 26, 2003.)

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