28 January 2011
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion. I was too young to remember the disaster, but it has had a lasting effect on our space program, and I certainly remember the Columbia disaster which occurred when I was an undergraduate. It’s tempting when these sorts of things happen to say that space exploration is too dangerous and too hard and that we should turn back. But that’s exactly the wrong response. We should of course do as much as possible to minimize the danger of spaceflight, but not at the expense of actually exploring. The space shuttle is a bad design, with its solid boosters and its fragile heat shield right next to the ice-and-foam-shedding fuel tanks. But that means we need to learn from our mistakes and build a safer and more capable launch vehicle, not that we should give up on sending humans into space.
Whenever I think about the astronauts that we have lost in pursuit of exploration, a quote and a poem come to mind:
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr