A couple of nights ago, I was happily showing a friends – a fellow space buff – my favourite moment in cinematic history. It was the heartbreakingly beautiful docking sequence set to the Blue Danube in 2001. An elegent spaceplane languidly waltzes towards a spinning Space Station which is still to this day the most realistic, graceful and simply majestic designs for a space station I have ever seen. It says: We’re humans, we can create a sealed world that can orbit around our planet, and we can pretend it’s normal. We can do anything.
This, I thought, is the epitome of space exploration. This is what I want to live to see. Even though 2001 has come and gone, I still think I will see the day when we can rise into space and discover all the secrets that our solar system holds. One day, I said, we’ll get there.
And today, the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed. It won’t stop space exploration any more than the destruction of the Challenger did, and if anything, we are more well placed to handle this disaster than we ever have been before – we have three countries that are independently capable of placing a man into space this year, with many more to come. We even have amateur groups that are making serious efforts at putting humans into space without billions of dollars and the resources of thousands. We’ll still get there.
But we do have to remember that for now, space exploration is an incredibly dangerous task and anyone who goes up there really is The Right Stuff. So while people have said, two accidents out of 113 is not so bad, I said:
“I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that all astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts are more dedicated to their cause than to a 2% risk of death. But does that mean we should accept that for every 100 launches, two should be destroyed? Definitely not. If there is a way to reduce that risk, then we should take it, as long as it doesn’t compromise the necessity of the cause.
And in this case, if we could have reduced the risk by simply designing a new and better spacecraft, then the loss of two whole space shuttle crews – some of the best and brightest people in the world, and two of the most expensive and complex spacecraft – is just unacceptable.”
Perhaps America will realise the bravery of their astronauts now, and that every Shuttle launch is a potential disaster. And perhaps they’ll understand the need to give their space programme the support it deserves. If that happens, we won’t have to turn on the television to see a waltz in space.