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Urban Garlic
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I was an undergraduate in university (so y'all can just git off my lawn) and heard about it from a friend -- I initially didn't believe him, but soon found out that it was true. But, here's a story I don't often see re-told: After the space shuttles had been up enough times to be routine, and before the Challenger incident, I read an essay, I forget where, and I can't seem to find it now, by Isaac Asimov. The subject was the up-coming shuttle accident -- not Challenger specifically, of course nobody knew that was coming, but the probable future accident. Dr. Asimov made the point, rather clearly, that space flight is risky, and that as the launch rate increases and the cycles accumulate on the airframes, and the fallible humans adjust to the routine, somebody somewhere is going to screw up, or maybe just have some bad luck, and we're going to lose one of these things, and, the nature of the process being what it is, we'll probably lose the crew as well. But the essay was not at all cynical -- those of you who know Asimov's work will appreciate this. What he wanted was for "us", the forward-looking technically-minded folks that made up his audience, to be ready for the day. He had a few talking points about the value of manned spaceflight, and a clear understanding of the (relatively small) scientific value, as well as the high value of fulfilling the exploratory imperative, but my primary recollection was his sense that "we", space-flight enthusiasts, shouldn't get too comfortable just because this thing has worked a few times. Advocacy was still important, and would become even more so should the fateful day arrive, and we should be ready to articulate the reasons why we take the risks, even in the face of immediate loss. I think those of us who thought about these things, and immersed ourselves in the minutae of the shuttle design, figured on a re-entry problem being the most likely. Launch is high-stress, but it's brief, and re-entry occurs after the mission is mostly over, when stealth flaws have had a chance to grow to dangerous levels without detection, and that thermal-protection system was pretty scary and seemed unreliable at first. So that's partly why I was skeptical when I heard the news -- blew up at launch? Not the expected failure mode, even for those of us expecting some kind of failure. (Interestingly, the Columbia failure fit this narrative much better.) I don't know how many people read that essay, or what impact it had, but the space enthusiast community came together, and were advocates, and reiterated the reasons even in the face of loss.
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