The last few weeks have proven to be very interesting in space science.
Firstly we had the catastrophic explosion on the launch pad of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Thankfully nobody was seriously injured, and the launch (as have been all in the USA for some time now) was unmanned, with just a satellite, co leased by Facebook, being destroyed. I say “just” in context here though.
This is still the work of probably a huge team of engineers and scientists over many years to get to that launch ready stage. So whilst the media may have played it down after the initial “explosion”, we must not forget just how tricky space really is.
From the earliest days with the infant NASA, through to the Russian N1 (the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion pretty much in history). You pack a rocket with highly explosive fuels, and something goes wrong, it goes very wrong.
That brings us to our next interesting story. A year after an initial detection of an object in the right area, ESA have announced they have finally found the Philae Lander.
Two years since it bounced its way all over comet 67P, its final resting place, in a nasty looking crack in the comet, tipped over on its side, was finally confirmed by high resolution imaging at low altitude. The “candidate” spot detected a year earlier, being the one that was correct. Again, it shows just how hard spaceflight is. Even with the success of the orbiter around the comet, involving some of the greatest flight navigation in history, the lander portion was a limited success, working for a vastly shorter period of time than hope for.
Again, a huge amount of work, and engineering effort went in to that lander, and it must be devastating more than comforting to see it, now, in its forlorn state, sitting on the comet, but again, that’s the point… space is tricky!
NASA got complacent in the 1960s during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era. It cost the lives of three astronauts, after years of pumping high pressure oxygen in to spacecraft, the realisation that this was incredibly dangerous hit home on that fateful day in 1967.. but NASA bounced back, just over a year later sending three people on Apollo 8 round the Moon. They were not the only issues during the Moon landing era…Apollo 12 almost aborted with a lightning strike, Apollo 13 we all know the story there, and the troubles with missions like 16, almost not landing are well documented… space is hard, even with 5% of the GDP of the United States and close to 400,000 people working on it.
In the 1980s we lost the first of two shuttles, with a total of 14 astronauts perishing during take off and landing, and how did we respond? Initially with several years before a return to flight, and then after the second tragic loss in the 1990s, a complete cancellation of the shuttle program.. These accidents in fact should never have happened, with the warnings given, but they did… and in response, we get limited missions (almost cancelling the HST servicing one), and then complete stop.
SpaceX are only starting out on this journey, and we all hope they bounce back quickly… but it’s time that we acknowledge the risks involved, and accept them. Cars, and aircraft crash every day. Sometimes with huge loss of life, but we don’t cancel flying or driving. Space will only advance when we become less risk averse. Apollo 13 cost us (along with budget cuts) 3 missed chances to land on and explore the Moon. Challenger and Columbia cost us the ability to launch and land using a reusable spacecraft from U.S soil.. If an accident were to happen to SLS in 2018 or beyond, are we going to be brave and march forwards, or retreat back in to our safety blanket yet again?
One thing is for sure, if we take years to analyse and think about it, we’ll never get anywhere. Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White would, I guess would have said the same. 18 months from tragedy to triumph.
So what’s the conclusion? It has to be let’s push onwards… if we don’t, we may as well just give in now. In the words of Gene Kranz “Tough and Competent”… for Failure really isn’t an option