Waltzing into Space

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.

One Reply to “Waltzing into Space”

  1. I think that this tragedy will have a profound effect on the Space Programme, but it may be for good or for bad. It may lead to the development of new shuttle replacements and a recommitment to the Space Programme as a matter of pride, or it may reduce the Programme drastically, as it is at the moment too unsafe to be deemed worth the risk.

    While we think that a risk of 2% is low, I think the BBC News Site raised a good point when it said that if this risk attached to car travel then just making a journey to and from work every day for a month most people would have to be lucky to survive the month.

    While I accept that at the moment Space Travel is not comparable to ‘going to work everyday’, I agree strongly with Adrian that the risks should be reduced as far as is possible. Only then will more progress be made in space travel. The problem that we face at the moment is that after a major accident of this type, we will face a set back of around two-three years in the space programme.

    So unless we can reduce the risk of space flight to something in the region of .1% then we can except to almost loose 3 years out of every 20 to simply trying to assess what went wrong.

    The cost of designing a new shuttle (at the risk of withdrawal of certain other programmes) would almost certainly be balanced by the fact that we wouldn’t have to spend three years getting back to the point we were at before the accident.

    I realise that this is a very economic argument and that I am ignoring the human loss, but that simply adds weight to my argument. Such loss is very daunting, but we should not take it as a reason to abandon the whole idea, but as an encouragement to make it safer.


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