Wednesday, December 31, 2008

If Only They'd Been Wearing Seatbelts

A gash in one wing of the space shuttle Columbia, torn open by an errant piece of foam insulation during takeoff, doomed the spacecraft and 7 astronauts aboard to a fiery, violent, but mercifully quick death on Feb. 1, 2003. Everyone knows that. But a few morbid new details were made public this week, with the release of a new report from NASA. "The point of the 400-page analysis is to figure out how to make NASA's next spaceship more survivable," reports the AP. "The report targeted problems with the spacesuits, restraints and helmets of the Columbia crew."

What the report also shows, inadvertently, is a bizarre American proclivity to believe that all the risks in life -- all the risks in space flight! -- can be minimized or mitigated, if only we would take a few extra precautions, like installing better seatbelts on a doomed space shuttle, or making sure that astronauts have their visors down on re-entry -- even though neither of these precautions would have saved the Columbia 7.

"The NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at the spacesuits, helmets and seatbelts for both the shuttle and the next space capsule NASA is building," reports the AP. ". . . Had the astronauts had time to get their gear on and get their suits pressurized, they might have lived longer and been able to take more actions."

But they were doomed, no matter what actions they took, as the report (and the AP story) eventually concede. So, it just seems silly to place so much emphasis on restraints, helmets and pressurized flight suits, when the reason for the disaster was an undetected tear in the shuttle's skin, caused by a piece of falling insulation. Preventing a recurrence of that fatal chain of events is what the agency should be focused on, if anything. Yet -- as with so much in the American way of risk management and mitigation -- an emphasis is placed on the relatively trivial and inconsequential.

It reminds me of those news stories one reads, recounting some horrific wreck -- a van full of Mennonites plunging into a crevasse, for instance -- in which it's always noted whether the occupants were wearing seatbelts, as if that would have made any difference! A story I read a few years ago, here in Colorado, told of a bicyclist who momentarily lost his focus and swerved into the path of an 18-wheeler, hurtling 85 miles-per-hour down the interstate. The results were obviously fatal, yet the reporter, true to form, felt compelled to add that the victim was wearing a bike helmet. Did it matter? No.

But that's the American way.

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