Weighing the risks

February 09, 2003|By Gordon Livingston

IN OUR national grief over the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, we are in danger of overlooking some lessons from the tragedy.

It is inevitable that we glorify the dead astronauts beyond what they were: smart, courageous people, conscious of the risks but willing to take them to enjoy the thrill and prestige of being space travelers.

That they were patriotic and dedicated to their jobs is beside the point. The applicants for such work are legion, and in preflight interviews the astronauts repeatedly characterized their experiences as "fun" and "exciting."

An activity that requires people to travel 18,000 miles an hour with re-entry temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees is obviously dangerous and unforgiving of any malfunction. There is enough history of mechanical mishaps in the 42 years of the space program to have killed 10 astronauts before Columbia disintegrated.

The investigation into the cause of the disaster has just begun. No doubt the experts will find something to explain it; they always do. But does anyone think that we have seen the last fatality?

As we push on to Mars, the risks increase and, thankfully, there will always be people eager to take them. The eventual pinpointing of the cause of the disaster, whether it be missing thermal tiles, structural failure or something else, will, as with the Challenger explosion in 1986, reassure us that some correction will be made that will make the flights safer.

But as Ernest K. Gann observed about aircraft crash investigations, "Sometimes we are left only with the feeling that some malevolent genie unzipped his pants and urinated on the pillar of science."

There is an old saying that the difference between intelligence and stupidity is that there are limits to intelligence. There are also limits to technology, and there exists considerable potential for error in our most sophisticated machines.

System redundancy, prior reliability and the best quality control mankind can devise do not ensure perfection. This is worth contemplating as we prepare for a war that we expect will be a triumph of U.S. technology. But the video game quality of recent American wars has failed to prevent some terrible mistakes. The killing of 204 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad bomb shelter in the first gulf war and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 conflict over Kosovo spring immediately to mind.

We are always subject to the law of unintended consequences. We explore space because we are a curious people, committed to seeking out the frontiers of our universe. This need is one of our most compelling human qualities. It is a sign of our optimism that we assume that we can overcome all obstacles that stand in the way of our journeys. And we are willing to take casualties to do this. They are the predictable, inadvertent cost of exploration.

Likewise, the war on which we appear about to embark carries with it a huge risk of unanticipated disaster. Arab backlash, death on both sides, oilfields ablaze, environmental catastrophe, chemical and biological agents loosed on the wind.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, our grief was laced with bewilderment. How could this have happened to us? Much the same response was on display this week when the space shuttle disintegrated. There is an arrogance implied in such a reaction. Unexpected death from terrorism and from technological failures has been a fact of life for a long time and promises to be a part of our future.

We may need a change in attitude in which we spend less time and emotional energy on puzzlement at our vulnerability to random calamity and more on acceptance that we live in a dangerous world. We may need a determination to learn what we can from what happens with the knowledge that perfect safety will always elude us.

What we should respect most about the Columbia astronauts ought to be that they died in the pursuit of peaceful and humanly useful goals. They represented not just the best among us, but they embodied our better selves.

Those of our sons and daughters who may be about to die pursuing a process of unimaginable destruction are equally brave, well-motivated and infinitely precious. Do we really want to ask this of them?

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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