Friday, July 27, 2007

A rough day for human space exploration

Yesterday was not a good day for human exploration of space. A report was released suggesting that some astronauts may have been drunk when they were launched into space, NASA announced that a computer destined for the space station had been sabotaged, and an explosion at the Mojave Air and Space Port killed three people during testing of an engine for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket.

The timing of these three events is unfortunate, but certainly unrelated. The story of the allegedly drunk astronauts is part of a new study into astronaut health and mental health that NASA had commissioned, such a study is long overdue and needed. If it uncovers problems, that is a good thing -- these problems can be corrected before they cost astronauts their lives. It should not surprise us that astronauts are human, too. We ask them to do amazingly courageous acts on a continual basis; we should not be surprised that these people are not superhuman at some level.

The sabotage of a computer is more worrisome. Yes, it is good that it was caught, and that the computer would not have controlled any vital functions. But why somebody would do such sabotage is the question of the day. We'll need to let investigations run their course here. But, again, it is best to catch these problems now, before anyone's life is in danger.

The explosion of a rocket motor being tested by Scaled Composites for SpaceShipTwo was, in my opinion, the worst news, precisely because three people were killed. I hope that SpaceShipTwo will be made all the safer by this horrible accident, and my heart goes out to those who lost loved ones in the explosion. We need to realize that private spaceflight is a new field, lots of new ideas are being tested, and bad things are going to happen. People will lose their lives in pursuit of mankind's dream to fly in space. I hope that these accidents will not scare us into staying firmly rooted on the ground, but spur us to new heights of exploration.

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