Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NASA's rough week

Image Credit: NASA

This week marks the anniversary of the three worst accidents in NASA's history.

  • January 27, 1967 Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a launch pad fire during a training mission for the Apollo spacecraft. The fire was ignited by an electrical spark that ignited the pure-oxygen atmosphere of the Apollo capsule.
  • January 28, 1986 Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The explosion was caused by a combination of bitterly cold weather and poor design of joints in the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.
  • February 1, 2003 Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon died when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry. A piece of foam fell of the external fuel tank during liftoff and hit the shuttle's wing, creating a hole that allowed hot gases to enter and destroy the craft.

It is important to remember these people and accidents. These men and women willingly put their lives at risk to explore space, bravery that deserves recognition. But also, each of these accidents may have been preventable. A string of human errors and cultural issues led to each accident. These errors are much easier to see in retrospect than they were ahead of time, and so we should be careful in assigning blame to freely. Yet we can and must learn from these mistakes to protect future lives; to ignore these lessons would be an unforgiveable failure.

Finally, we should all recognize that more lives will be lost in the future. Space travel is extraordinarily dangerous. As private companies also begin to open space to civilians, we must accept that there will be accidents and lives lost, and most of these will probably be due to human error. Let's just hope that those errors are due to exploration and humankind's pushing of the envelope, and not due to our failure to learn from our history.

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