Maintaining Perspective

First, let me go on the record as stating that I am absolutely moved by the profound sadness and loss which has befallen the families of the seven astronauts killed in last weekend's tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. It was a terrible sight to witness, virtually in real time, as the disintegrating pieces of the spacecraft arced through that brilliant blue sky on our televisions, like so many glowing embers from a child's sparkler on the Fourth of July. Stunned, we sat transfixed; knowing that we were distant witnesses to the violent deaths of seven human beings. The simultaneous beauty and horror of the spectacle were incongruous.

Yet, as affected as I was by the unfolding events of that Saturday morning, I could not help but juxtapose the shuttle's demise with that of US Airways Express flight 5481 that left Charlotte, NC bound for Greer, SC with 21 souls on board January 8, 2003. On that Wednesday morning, moments after takeoff, the commuter aircraft went into a steep nose-up attitude, rolled over and crashed to the earth next to a maintenance terminal. Upon impact, the plane exploded into a fireball, incinerating every passenger and crewmember on board, burning them beyond recognition in a flaming mass of white-hot aluminum and aviation fuel.

The US Airways passengers weren't 'heroes' in the media-hyped sense that we understand today. They were simply normal folks going about their daily lives. They were heading back to school, or visiting friends, or earning a living and providing for their families the best way they knew how. Among the dead were college students, a retired nurse, a family from the Bahamas, and numerous businessmen, the people that make our economy work, that crank the engine of enterprise on a daily basis, all to no great fanfare. They left behind wives, kids, sisters, brothers, parents, friends, fellow church members, employees, coworkers, bills, mortgages, goals and aspirations--all the same exact things that the ill-fated astronauts left behind.

Yet where is the national memorial for them? Where was the 24X7 news coverage for days on end? Where was the president with his "moment of silence"? Where was the national mourning, the outpouring of angst and grief for these fellow citizens? Where were the talking heads of cable news blathering on for seemingly endless hours, filling the air with inanity and speculation regarding their tragic passing? Where were the editorial cartoons of their commuter plane passing through the Pearly Gates? Other than those who had direct association with the victims, did anyone in America miss a beat that January morning, except to note that another commercial airliner had crashed?

Why is it that we took the news of their fiery demise in stride, with nothing more than an "Oh, that's terrible!' forgotten by the time the next J-Lo story broke on Entertainment Tonight, yet we are collectively apoplectic over the astronauts' deaths when the shuttle crew was arguably in a much more precarious position from the moment they volunteered for the job?

Sure, there is the aura of 'the unknown,' the excitement and glamour that surrounds space travel. There is also the sense that these astronauts were explorers, seeking out new worlds and performing complex experiments for the betterment of mankind while living the adventure of a lifetime. But, at the end of the day, isn't the possibility of not returning part of the risk package that explorers have accepted from the beginning of time? Why should the shuttle astronauts be any different? Why do we turn out in droves to place flowers at the Johnson Space Flight Center, yet we drive right past Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, NC with nary a second thought? Has the relative frequency with which private and commercial aircraft crash inured us to the horror of those occurrences? Were the final moments for those commuters any less horrible than those of the shuttle crew? Whose death should we more closely identify with, the death of a professional explorer, or the death of a businessman preparing for his morning meetings? In the final analysis, is there really any difference?

I read in a news report the other day that NASA scientists had recently performed a statistical analysis of the probabilities associated with failure of the space shuttle system. It seems they found that one mission in every 75 was likely to have a catastrophic failure.

In May of 1998, the British science magazine New Scientist did a study of the probability that a rocket failure (either Soviet or American) would significantly delay the construction of the International Space Station. The results of their analysis were as follows:

"The probability of at least (emphasis added) one launch failure resulting in the loss of its cargo -- through an explosion, placement in the wrong orbit or another mishap -- is 99.5 percent," New Scientist said.

"In fact, NASA and the Russian Space Agency should together expect to lose five missions, with the Russian rockets being the most vulnerable."

The magazine added that there was still a 73.6 percent probability of losing one of the 33 shuttle missions associated with the ISS. NASA, of course, disputed the claims at the time.

New Scientist continued:

'But, even assuming NASA's figure of 99.6 percent for the shuttle's reliability since the Challenger disaster, and a generous 93.2 percent for the Russian rockets, taken from published sources, the chance of losing one assembly mission is 62.3 percent. With the supply flights, it becomes 98.7 percent.'

Columbia STS-107 was overall shuttle mission number 113. We have lost two shuttles, and their crews, since 1981. Ahead of schedule, yes, but not outside the math. As sad as this situation is, it is bound to happen from time to time. Accidents have a way of doing that. Even without the burden of a bloated and aging bureaucracy like NASA, space travel is an inherently risky proposition. Private contractors, while simultaneously pursuing alternative methods of accomplishing our objectives in space, would certainly never guarantee 100% safety for astronauts under their employ, any more than an airline can guarantee that there will never be another plane crash. If we continue sending human beings into space, we will eventually lose more spacecraft, and future astronauts will likely die as a result. Grow up, America, and deal with it. As a society, we view the periodic immolation of airline passengers as an acceptable risk, yet we find the deaths of astronauts hurtling back to earth at 17,000 miles an hour shocking? Exactly how na've are we?

The fact that these missions do contain a great deal of risk is a surprise to no one inside the system, least of all the astronauts who know the dangers going into the job. Given the stresses that this equipment goes through, it is truly amazing that disasters don't occur more frequently. The shuttle Columbia was traveling at Mach 18.3 when it broke up. That's over 18 times the speed of sound, almost 13,000 MPH. At those speeds, with the surrounding atmosphere superheated by friction to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, you don't enjoy the luxury of having too many things get outside of acceptable performance parameters before NASA declares the inevitable "SFO contingency" (Space Flight Operations) and the locals in Nacogdoches start gathering up the pieces.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not intended to disparage the crew of STS-107, nor am I being disrespectful to their memories, or their families. I am not denying their dedication, professionalism and the courage that it takes to fly into space. I just think as human beings we have our priorities a little screwed up. Let the families of the seven Columbia crewmembers grieve for their loss alongside the families of the 21 commuters on Flight 5481. I'm fairly certain that their pain is indistinguishable. The rest of us should say a prayer for their souls, and then get on with our lives and leave them in peace.

Related reading:

Space Flight Operations Contingency Action Plan:

Risk Management for the Tiles of the Space Shuttle:

NASA's Qualitative Risk Assessment System:

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Jef Allen's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Jef Allen is a technology professional living in Georgia. He has a "zero-tolerance" policy toward political correctness, the coerced redistribution of wealth, central planning wonks, and people who actually think we are winning the "war on drugs."