Why We Think It Can’t Happen to Us

I get irked when people start talking about how entertainment adversely affects how we live our lives. (My favorite example, and I can’t recall the source right now: Some people say that violence in movies and television encourages more violence in society, but do you see the broad spectrum of comedy making people funnier?) That said, I think a small case can be made for shaping our expectations when it comes to something like space travel.

Columbia burned up as it re-entered the atmostphere. Aside from launch, the re-entry is the most dangerous part of a shuttle mission: The shuttle broke up at Mach 18 (about 12,500 mph) at a point where friction from the atmosphere applies enormous heat and pressure on the craft. Consider the fastest you’ve traveled in your life and compare it to that. It’s these types of numbers that make me amazed that such a thing is possible sometimes.

And yet, NASA has done it 113 times with the shuttle program, and more when you include the pre-shuttle missions. Usually, a shuttle’s landing merits a small blurb in the newspaper or 20 seconds of video on the evening news. Although going to space and back is one of the most dangerous, complicated endeavors we humans attempt, we’ve done it many times. It seems routine.

But of course it hasn’t always been routine. At the start of the space program, most of the United States’s rockets blew up on the launch pad. In 1967, three Apollo I astronauts died when an electrical fire broke out in the capsule during training. In 1986 the shuttle Challenger exploded during launch.

Now, back to entertainment. In 1970, Apollo 13 suffered a malfunction that cut short its lunar mission. The air systems also malfunctioned, requiring the scientists on the ground to come up with an improvised carbon monoxide filter using the materials at hand. When it came time to re-enter the atmosphere, the astronauts and NASA weren’t sure if the heat shield was attached properly, so there was a very high chance that it, too, could have burned up. But it didn’t, and more of us know this because of the movie Apollo 13.

Against incredible odds, the crew returned safely and made for great some entertainment — the fact that it actually happened made the story all the more remarkable. That’s great drama… and it gets played out again and again in our fictions: bombs are defused at the last second (The Peacekeeper comes to mind as an example, and no doubt 24 when this season wraps up); reinforcements appear just in time (too many to mention).

So when disasters like Columbia happen, it’s difficult to remember at first just how complicated this whole endeavor is. As I mentioned in a previous entry here, my respect for astronauts has risen dramatically, because those of us who aren’t doing that kind of exploration now have a better idea of the ramifications of spaceflight.

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