"It's the price of exploration. But we're Americans, for goodness sake. .... the descendant[s] of pioneers. This is what Americans do." -- William Fisher (former astronaut) Houston Space Center, February 4, 2003
On January 28, 1986, within minutes of the appearance of TV images of the Challenger's vapor-trail curving down toward the Atlantic, the phone-lines into John Glenn's Senate office were jammed with calls from all over the world. At first, callers were desperate for information and had turned to the one public person whose name they connected to America's space program. As the day wore on, more of the callers offered condolences, tried to account for what had happened, and expressed hopes that America would carry on with its space program despite the tragedy.
From that first day, John Glenn reminded all of us: "The shuttle safety record was excellent, yet we all knew it could happen some time. It was a day we hoped would never come, but it had."
The Challenger crash dominated public attention for many weeks, and the painstaking analysis of what caused the crash provided many important lessons for future space missions.
But however much we learned about O-rings and safety procedures, we apparently still haven't learned some larger lessons about the limitations of human skill and prowess, and about the limits of human capacity for compassion and goodness. Both of these are possibly related to our human penchant for seeing the universe as governed by good and all-powerful gods with natural laws that we can know and use for our purposes, as well as our tendency to disregard the role of chance in human affairs.
Modern science, of course, deals with chance all the time, quantifying probabilities and risks for every endeavor we undertake. We know in specific mathematical terms that the larger and more complex the system, the more chance that error will creep in.
Space shuttles are large, extremely complex systems, and over the years the reduction of errors has been steady, reducing risks and the probability of failure, and increasing safety.
The risks for the Columbia shuttle were apparently within acceptable parameters, though reports are surfacing that some specialists had been warning that safety standards were being compromised by cuts in funding. But the problem always is that no matter how much money is spent, no matter how rigorous the standards, no matter how good the math, we are imperfect and prone to error, and we can't even be sure we start with the real parameters of a project.
We know there will always be chance errors that mar our greatest aspirations, and that there was always a chance that disaster with the space shuttle "could happen any time." The Columbia astronauts knew that risk, and took it willingly.
Yet there is a curious disconnect between our thinking about space missions and our thinking about war. If we recognize that we can't design a totally safe, accident-proof space shuttle -- which, for all its complexity is a relatively small system compared to designing a world without Saddam Hussein -- what makes our President and his advisors so confident they can configure foolproof nuclear warheads and conduct a safe, clean war on Iraq in which nobody gets hurt?
Then there's the lesson about our human capacity for goodness and compassion. The careful collection and identification of bits and pieces of the astronauts, the tender care for their bereaved families, and the public honor of their sacrifice are marks of good, compassionate, moral, people. Yet President Bush, who fights back tears when eulogizing seven of his own tribe, is the same President Bush who just four months ago arranged for a remotely controlled missile to blow up six human beings -- from another tribe -- in the Yemen desert. It is the same President Bush who is designing a war likely to cause seventy-thousand times seven deaths of human beings.
"[This is what] the Bushies see:," notes Ira Chernus, "the U.S. frightening the whole world so badly that no one will dare fire a single bullet at us. Let them be as angry as they like, just so they know who is the meanest, toughest son of a bitch on the global block." ("Shock and awe: Is Baghdad the next Hiroshima?" Jan. 27, 2003, Common Dreams)
We're Americans, for goodness sake. Is this what we do?
In Gore Vidal's 1958 TV play Visit to a Small Planet the amiable alien who has brought Earth to the brink of WW III is whisked away at the last moment by the men-in-white-coats from his own planet, who apologize to the Earthlings for letting him escape from their loony-bin. But in 2003, on this real "small planet", no such deus ex machina waits in the wings to restore goodness to the world.
For goodness sake, we need to get the warmakers off the stage, and get new scripts for all the people whose lives are at risk on our planet.
For goodness sake, we need to stop thinking we can plan and control unimaginably large, complex and chancy systems to make ourselves the meanest and toughest SOB on the planet.
For goodness sake, we need to recognize that though chance is a major player in war, wars don't happen by chance.
For goodness sake, we need to stop investing in weapons of any kind of destruction and start using our wealth to make Planet Earth habitable, harmonious, productive and sustainable, and to fund greater exploration of the wonders of the universe.
We're Americans -- for goodness sake.