Reflections on the Columbia disaster

posted 2/06/03

Much as I quickly grew weary of the all-pervasive, saccharine patriotism and general obsession that swept the western world after September 11, 2001, I have quickly grown weary of the public outpouring and eulogizing of the seven individuals who died when NASA's 2-billion dollar spacecraft fell apart over the southwestern United States.
Please don't misunderstand me - I hold astronauts and cosmonauts in high regard. They do a difficult job poorly understood by the populace in, as has been demonstrated all too well, often risky conditions. I've met a few, over the years, mostly retired fellows who went on to write books about their experiences. Good folks, all. Just not necessarily the brightest.
For all that NASA has had a long series of successful space shuttle missions (ignoring, of course, the Challenger and now the Columbia), a complete listing of all NASA's projects and missions from the 1990's to today would include far too many, well, less-than-successful missions. Satellites fail to reach orbit, rockets are intentionally self-destructed moments after takeoff due to problems, unmanned probes stop working, never work, or crash into things harder than they were supposed to. And then there's the fact that almost every shuttle mission is delayed at once due to safety concerns...
The seven who died, far above the earth's surface in February, 2003 should not be made heroes. They went, willingly, into a program plagued with mishaps, near-misses, and constant aborts at T-3, administered by a government body with a less-than-stellar, if you'll excuse the pun, track record at getting things where they're supposed to go on time and safely. We should not be praising their heroism - we should be lambasting their stupidity. I, for one, would not entrust myself to a space program that once sent a probe aloft with it's batteries in backwards. And these are only the public failures; who knows how many accidents and incidents have taken place that we never hear about?
I don't know why the shuttle fell apart over Texas. I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was because the wrong glue was used to hold the ceramic tiles on. What I do, however, know, is this - the people on board were fools.
Is it likely that the Columbia disaster will cause NASA to reexamine the space program, adding more safety features and fail-safes? Wil NASA finally be held accountable for it's paltry return on the billions of taxpayer dollars it gets annually?
I'm not holding my breath.


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