More “arrogance” — and we need it

OK. I know I’m straying from the central mission of, but I feel I have to write about this. Columbia was a genuine tragedy that shouldn’t be exploited for political gain, either by the left or the right. I’ve not managed to track down a transcript of the CBC exchange in which American “arrogance” is blamed for Columbia’s explosive end, but I did get an email bulletin from the Institute for Public Accuracy hours after the shuttle broke up over Texas. In it, rather than offer themselves as experts on what might have happened, the offered experts used Columbia to advance their anti-technological agenda and find some fault with the direction of the space program. Here are the sources offered. (I’ve removed the contact information so that they don’t get slammed by angry B2I readers.)

LLOYD J. DUMAS: Dumas is the author of “Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies” and is a professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas. He said today: “The tragic breakup of the space shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the atmosphere this morning once more underlines the vulnerability of highly complex technologies. It is too early to know what caused the shuttle to disintegrate — human error, technical failure, or something else. But the lesson is clear: when fallible human beings interact with powerful technologies, failures are inevitable. This time, the failure took the lives of seven astronauts. The next catastrophic human-technical failure could take the lives of thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, if the technology involved is a nuclear power plant, a highly toxic chemicals facility, or a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon of mass destruction. For the same reasons, the space-based weapons the government is so determined to deploy will be no less vulnerable to malfunction, with potentially disastrous consequences. The Columbia tragedy is the latest in a series of warnings we have been given that we must now find ways to eliminate the most dangerous of our technologies if we are to permanently avoid catastrophe.”
KARL GROSSMAN: Grossman is the author of “The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet” and is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury. He said today: “The Columbia tragedy comes as NASA has been moving on a vastly expanded program for the use of nuclear power in space. Dubbed Project Prometheus, it is to broaden NASA’s $1 billion Nuclear Systems Initiative begun last year and include development of a nuclear-propelled rocket. Consider the consequences if a rocket powered by a nuclear reactor came down in pieces over Texas or elsewhere on earth. Indeed, in May and June, NASA intends to launch from Florida two rockets, both carrying rovers to land on Mars that are equipped with plutonium-powered heaters…. NASA’s Environmental Impact Statement says for each shot ‘the overall chance of any accident that releases radioactive materials to the environment is about 1 in 230.’ These are high odds for catastrophe…. The Columbia disaster must show us the awful folly of this atomic space path.”
BRUCE GAGNON: Director of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, Gagnon said today: “The Pentagon’s role in the space program has been expanding, especially since the recent budget cuts. Recent statements by former Secretary of the Navy, and now new NASA director, Sean O’Keefe have indicated that all future NASA missions will be ‘dual-use’ — in other words, the Pentagon will continue to take over the space program. ‘Star Wars’ accelerates the weaponization of space — the so-called ‘missile defense’ programs are actually offensive systems although the Pentagon likes to pretend that they are mainly for defensive purposes. As the Columbia tragedy shows, all these technologies are error-prone.”

As each blurb reveals, these guys the see the space program as either highly arrogant in its attempts to learn more about the universe (Dumas), anti-nuke (Grossman) and as some backdoor for the military (Gagnon.) I’m hearing in these voices the chorus, which comes every time something goes wrong, that sings, “Don’t do it, don’t venture forth, it’s too scary and dangerous. Spend the money here on earth.”
Well, you know what? Exploration is famously dangerous. Space is a hostile environment and people can die there pretty damn easily. Yes, NASA uses highly complicated technologies that can fail — spectactularly. But these are not reasons to stop going up there. Planes fall out of the sky all the time, but you don’t hear nervous Nellies saying we should stop flying because it’s a dangerous business. In 113 missions, NASA has had two major accidents — that have had the misfortune of being televised, explosive and spectacular. Before the shuttle program got off the ground, a fire on the pad during a check on the Apollo 1 spacecraft claimed the lives of Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee in 1967. Apollo 13 was almost a disaster when an oxygen tank ruptured, but the three astronauts were able to return to earth safely. In all, since 1958, NASA has lost 17 astronauts.
These tragic accident should remind us that the ultimate sacrifice of those 17 men and women were made willingly and for the betterment of not just Americans, but for all of humanity. Not only do we get real benefits from the space program (computers small enough to fit in your breast pocket, for instance) but their courage — and their sacrifice — inspire us to lift up our eyes from the daily grind in front of us and look beyond the horizon to wonder, “What’s out there?” And that inspiration is worth more than all the money in the world, for these men and women challenge us to stretch, to reach and to grasp at the stars in an arrogant, mad, brave — and quintessentially, wonderfully, human — gesture.
Godspeed, Columbia.