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Space flight really is rocket science

In history, National News, Opinion, Science, Technology, Uncategorized on November 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm

DIH LOGOBy now, most have heard about the failed test flight of Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceShip Two,” which crashed in California’s Mojave Desert on October 31st.  One of the spacecraft’s pilots died in the crash, the other critically injured. While this is Virgin’s first fatality during the development of their “sight-seeing” spaceship for the super rich, perhaps it is just another sign that the pursuit of more money and fame may not be adequate reasons attempt another small step for (rich) mankind. Space travel really is rocket science, and then some.

After a successful flight and ocean landing in July of 1961, astronaut Gus Grissom’s Mercury space capsule sank after a premature detonation of explosives blew the hatch. Grissom managed to escape, only to die six years later in a fire during a “plugs out” test of the Apollo 1 capsule on the pad at Cape Kennedy. Astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee also perished in that tragedy.

Other terrible accidents followed during America’s “space race” to beat Russia to the moon and meet President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man there before the end of the decade. America did finally put men on the moon, several times. But, as space travel became more complex, the dangers increased exponentially, and so did the cost of human life.

Space flight is hard! It should be left to the experts.

Space flight really is rocket science!

Famously re-created by Ron Howard on film, Apollo 13 was, in short, a miracle of human survival. By all odds, three guys trapped in a freezing pop can, 240,000 miles from Earth, should never have been able to make it home. Fortunately, thanks to the skill, ingenuity and experience of the crews both in space and on the ground, the movie managed to get a real-life happy ending.

More than two decades after the Apollo 1 catastrophe, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, marking the first time a civilian had died in a space travel accident. In February 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas after insulating foam from the main fuel tank had damaged the heat shield as it left the launch pad.

No matter how far technology appears to have advanced, space flight is now, and will always be, experimental. The engineers and pilots at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) learned a great deal from the catastrophic failures mentioned earlier. But as more, privately developed, manned space flights are attempted, it is important to keep in mind that all of these disasters happened under the watchful eyes of some of the smartest, most experienced aerospace experts in the world. Yet people still died.

At our present level of technology, space flight is not something that should be left to over-privileged billionaires with fancy English titles. It’s dangerous, expensive and the drive for national security and scientific achievement does not exist in these endeavors. Virgin Galactic’s efforts are about money, pure and simple. Upon further reflection, however, cash may not be any less a humanitarian reason to get into manned space flight than beating the Communists to the moon.

After mothballing the last of the space shuttle fleet, America seems to be all but out of any residual space race that may still exist. Massive budget cuts enacted by the Obama administration have stripped NASA to its bare bones, its government money now subsidized more often by private companies using facilities and personnel to launch communications satellites. Without the space shuttle, the International Space Station depends more and more on private industry – and the Russians – to remain manned and supplied.

Lacking a more pressing need to funnel billions of dollars back into government-sponsored space flight, private organizations will eventually be the only way Americans go to space. For more companies like Virgin to get involved in the endeavor, however, there would need to be some kind of return on investment to motivate them.

Perhaps one of the space probes will find gold or platinum on Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, inspiring a space-age gold rush. Until that happens, people should probably keep an eye open for more rich kids’ toys dropping out of the sky.
The Jamestown Comet Editor/Publisher Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer based in Jamestown, Ohio. More at gerydeer.com.