Sunday, December 12, 2004

Raiding the Archives 11 - Risk

As I touched on in my earlier post on the Snowbirds, I've pasted a column I published in the London Free Press this past January. Its central theme closely parallels my thoughts in light of this week's Snowbird crash - namely, of risk, and the lessons we all take away when the worst happens.

I wrote the column originally to mark the one-year anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. NASA's tragedies seem to have converged on that one-week period: the Challenger explosion on January 28th, 1986, Columbia's disintegration on February 1st, 2003, and the Apollo 1 launchpad fire on January 27, 1967. I thought that somewhere within all that spectacular loss of some of the best people the world had ever known, there had to be some lesson for the rest of us.

Within the idealistic cloud that defines my outlook on the world, I believe every tragedy, no matter how terrible or how despondent it makes us feel, needs to also present us with some sort of going-forward opportunity. Cataclysmic loss simply can't end with a closed door. There's always a sliver of hope there, and it's our obligation to stick our heads through the tiny little crack.

With that in mind, I hope you appreciate the lesson of this piece.

Originally published January 28, 2004 in the London Free Press

Risk a critical element of living

Eighteen years ago today, a shining symbol of American technological prowess annihilated itself in front of a horrified world.

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger didn't just kill seven astronauts and rain massive amounts of debris down on the Atlantic coast. It shook our confidence in the can-do spirit that drove the American space program to the moon.

The disaster prompted calls to end human presence in space.

The more vocal opponents said -– and continue to say -– any money spent on space would be better spent on Earthbound problems like education, health care and the homeless.

Those protests grew louder when Challenger's sister ship, Columbia, disintegrated on re-entry a year ago this Sunday.

Naysayers say the risk and expense just aren't worth it.

Geoff Sheerin is leading a London team competing to be the first private venture to put a human in space. Understandably, he disagrees with the notion of abandoning space exploration.

"As a species, we've been programmed to wander and to be curious about where we're going," said the founder and team leader of the Canadian Arrow project. "Humans need to explore, to see what's around the corner and over the horizon. Some people may disagree, but this is why we've been successful and have survived as a species."

Sheerin says the issue isn't really about space at all. Virtually everything we do entails some degree of risk. Seven students on a ski trip in British Columbia died in an avalanche on the same day as the Columbia disaster, "yet I don't hear calls to stop skiingĂ‚…There's some risk in a lot of human endeavours, even those we do for fun. But you don't stop doing them simply because something might happen."

History is filled with humans' failure at the edge of the reality envelope. Shipborne explorers lost at sea. Test pilots crashing their aircraft. Babies falling over as they attempt to walk. Yet if someone hadn't pushed that envelope and risked it all, we'd still be pretty much nowhere.

Shuttles will resume flying soon enough. Even then, there's no guarantee another accident won't happen before the fleet is finally retired. No technology is perfect, especially in the ruthlessly unforgiving environment of space.

Our recent history is filled with huge space-related disasters. Brazil's space program was decimated by a launch pad explosion last August that killed 21 of its top space scientists and technicians. NASA's Russian partners have also witnessed their own share of failures, including an accident in October 2002 that killed a soldier and polluted the countryside.

Yet we still reach for the stars.

As China's recent successful manned space mission shows, such capability allows a nation to drive itself to the next level on the world stage. And to motivate the next generation.

Tomorrow's rocket scientists are today's kids downloading the latest pictures from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars.

Even if most of them never send a resume to NASA, merely watching the spectacle of space flight lights the fire in all of them to push their own performance -– in whatever they do -– farther.

In the longer term, going into space will enable us to someday move humanity to another planet - something we'll need to do if we trash the Earth before the sun swallows it up.

Everything we do is potentially fatal. The simple act of going to work incorporates a whole raft of risks which, to the most phobic of us, would keep us locked indoors forever.

We could get hit by a bus and die today. Or we could simply die years from now from traffic-caused smog.

Yet we still get up and leave the house every morning. That's because sitting on a couch all day and doing nothing more challenging than popping open a can of pop involves its own set of unacceptable risks.

In space, as in life, the only true danger lies in never taking risk in the first place.



Jill said...

This is the right message for me at the right time. As always, I am thunderstruck by your eloquence. Thank you. jk

Anonymous said...

Veda says:
(http...vaza blogspot com)

Again, excellent piece. Carmi, you never cease to amaze me. :)

As for the risks, I stand in agreement. Can't live, not really, without them.

As for the Challenger. I was a kid in school and you just put me right back there, when they wheeled the tvs in... It's always good to remember where we've been.

carmilevy said...

Thanks, Jill and Veda. I really do try to leave a bit of myself in everything I write. Folks seem to remember that more than the impersonal stuff.

Major events like this always seem to sear themselves on our brains. We remember where we were and what we were doing at the time. These are amazingly powerful and personal. And I always feel the need to pick up a pen when stuff like this happens.

I wasn't writing the column when 9/11 happened, but its long-term impacts seem to find their way into a lot of what I write. Similarly, the Columbia accident managed to find its way into my writing.

In a way, it's cheating: people are already predisposed to feelings of emotion related to these events. But I feel words can help focus on the good, and if they prompt even one person to realize this, it will have been worth it.