Shuttle Disaster Confronts Nation with Realities of Space Travel

So, as someone posted in reply to my 1996 essay predicting another shuttle disaster, and my subsequent apology to “all the hard-working folks at NASA,” posted in April of last year, “if only you’d been right on that one.” If only. But with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think it’s fair to lay ultimate responsibility for this disaster at NASA’s door (though clearly that’s what’s going to happen, they being such convenient scapegoats). No, the ultimate responsibility for the death of those astronauts is in our hands, yours and mine, the people who allowed, no, demanded that the engineers, managers, and politicians running NASA dutifully recreate the exact same conditions that led to our previous two lethal space-program disasters. Sending people off our planet on a flaming bomb and returning them safely to Earth are things that, currently at least, are at the very limits of our abilities. Given a few dozen successes, though, we come to see it as routine, and the public’s interest wanes, and the funding starts to dry up, and decision-makers more attuned to the public will than to the engineering realities of what they’re engaged in begin to cut corners, until some brave adventurers pay for that hubris with their lives. Anyway, enough of that. Here are some links to provide context: the late Richard Feynman’s appendix to the Challenger investigation report, where he wrote, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” And, from a 19-year-old test pilot named John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Highflight.

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