Friday, January 28, 2011

In Remembrance

25 years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger was lost 73 seconds into her flight.  Seven souls were lost.  At the time, I was at home -- school had been canceled due to snow.  Though a was a space nerd even then, I wasn't watching the launch.  I was out sledding, and came inside for a break when my mom called to say she'd heard something on the radio about the space shuttle landing in the Atlantic Ocean.  I was glued to CNN for the rest of the day.

Like many people, I felt that combination of shock, sadness, disbelief, even occasional hope that someone may have survived.  At the time, I was angry that the majority of the coverage seemed to focus only on Christa McAuliffe, the "teacher in space" astronaut.  As a kid, I didn't fully appreciate what it meant to have a civilian astronaut, and I felt that the rest of the crew was being shortchanged.  I had never appreciated just how dangerous space travel is, and how much each of our astronauts risks every time they journey into the heavens.

This week always contains a day of remembrance at NASA.  Yesterday was the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, in which three souls were lost, and February 1 will be the 8th anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven.  Each of these tragedies was the result of cultural and technical failures that, in retrospect, probably should have been caught.  But each also led to crucial improvements in safety, technology, and bureaucracy.  Perhaps the Apollo 1 fire is the most obvious example, as improvements made to Apollo capsules following the fire likely saved the Apollo 13 crew.

It appears that our country's space program may be beginning a transition to one dominated by the private sector.  When one of the many competing firms has a failure resulting in a loss of life, how will we respond?  Will we ground all private space missions until the exact cause is identified?  Will we end private investments in space travel?  I fear these reactions.  Instead, I hope we may be able to respond similar to how we have in the past -- be saddened, learn lessons and make necessary improvements, and then continue to push out bravely into the stars.

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