Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Remembering the 27th, 28th & 1st

When I was a junior in high school, on a day much like today, I wanted to stay home and watch TV a bit, so I was hoping the wintry weather would generate a snow day. I didn't often wish for this, as my childhood love of snow had subsided substantially (though I would sometimes ski through my yard), but on this day I wanted to be home. Winter and the superintendent, however, did not cooperate and we had only a delayed opening, and hooky was out of the question in my family so off I went.

And so I was sitting in Mr. Schmidt's chemistry class that morning. He was a nice man, but that class did very little to prepare me for a life on the periphery of chemistry, except that he did an excellent job of outlining the early 20th century revolution in chemistry & physics. I do not remember what he was talking about that morning when Mrs. Kurtz, the Biology II teacher, came in and commented on a news event. We all nodded, given we expected the news -- but then she restated herself as we had not heard her, and Mr. Schmidt got out the TV in his closet and I found myself watching TV that morning -- exactly what I had hoped to watch on a snow day but also nothing I had ever imagined or could have remotely hoped to watch. For that restatement was: "No, the space shuttle blew up!".

When my boy was three we were going one weekend to take him to the Boston Children's Museum, a wonderful place for a child of that age to explore and run around and have fun. As a bonus, we would ride the subway there and oh how he loves to ride trains. It was again a winter day and I drove the usual route to Boston & there is a spot on I-93 where you come out of the relatively untouched beauty of the Middlesex Fells and the skyline of Boston suddenly appears. It was in that spot that I heard the report on radio whose meaning became instantly clear, and I semi-silently cried "No!" -- an extended loss of radio contact with a space shuttle could not ever end happily.

We are in the midst of that grim week of anniversaries for NASA; yesterday marked the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 1, today the 23rd anniversary of the loss of Challenger and Sunday is 6th anniversary of the loss of Columbia. Only one of those events has any obvious connection to this time of year.

For as long as I can remember the space program has had an outsized influence on my imagination. My career path did not take me in a good direction to go to space, but I still think about it almost daily. In some ways these three disasters are completely removed from what I do, but in other ways they are not. I do subscribe to Edward Tufte's argument that poor data visualization helped enable the Challenger disaster, and while my plots do not carry such weighty implications I still must be ready in case they ever do. All three of these were hardware failures, and I do software, but software failures have caused unmanned probes to be lost and manned missions to go awry.

But of all else, it is important to remember those who pushed the limits and did not return. We must remember who they were and why they died, as they died doing important things and they died because humans make mistakes. Grissom, White & Chaffee were doomed by a design from which escape was impossible and fire likely. Smith, Scobee, McNair, Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis & Resnik died when a machine was run far outside its normal operating regime. Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool and Ramon died from a design which was not well matched to the materials used to construct it.

We recently learned some more details of the Columbia accident: how the astronauts never realized the disaster approaching them, but how pilot McCool worked calmly to deal with systematic failure just before it killed him. I wish I could have such coolness under stress.

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