Saturday, November 1, 2014

This Week In Space

So space has been particularly dangerous this week for us humans. Never mind my little jab last night at snagging an asteroid. Big-time ambitions like that are all well and good, and if we can actually pull them off, awesome. But this week has presented a harsh reminder that even the most basic aspects of going to space, simply traveling there, or existing there, have always and continue to be fraught with extreme danger.

Six seconds after launch on Tuesday, an unmanned Antares rocket blew up on the launchpad at Wallops Island, Virginia, intended to deliver supplies, as well as a group of assorted experiments, to the International Space Station. Nobody was injured there. However, three days later on Friday, a test flight in the Mojave Desert went awry, resulting in the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, killing one pilot and seriously wounding another (the names have not yet been released). SpaceShipTwo was a craft that was intended, when operational, to carry tourists- many of them celebrities- on 15-minute joyrides for $250,000 each. Roughly 700 people had already paid for the trip.

This is far from a rare occurrence. All of the little half-funny gags people make about a plane being a pressurized metal tube blasting through the skies by way of jet fuel? They are very much not jokes when you bring spacecraft into the discussion, and everything powering that plane that also applies to spacecraft is amplified to the point of lunacy. Nothing is easy; every stage of the journey can bring things to a sudden and catastrophic end. The problem is, though, because that is true, every time that catastrophe happens, calls inevitably arise to stop. To cut the funding. To abandon this space silliness and focus on problems on Earth. Sometimes that funding does get cut... leading to cut corners on the next mission in order to stay within a slashed budget... leading to another potential catastrophe.

I hope that doesn't happen. In the grand scheme of things, we haven't been in space that long. We're still in every sense of the word trying to figure out how to make space travel merely a thing that is unlikely to kill people that attempt it. The Age of Exploration saw this same thing with ships; often, crews attempting particularly long voyages, such as circumnavigations, weren't told by their captains that they would be doing such a thing until they were well into the actual trip, because if they had been told beforehand, it would have been nearly impossible to cobble a crew together. But if we were ever going to get to the point we are now, where nautical circumnavigations are less about if you'll come back alive than they are about how many extra pounds you'll be sporting when you do, those early, danger-laden trips into the unknown had to come first. Those lasted for hundreds of years before the danger went away.

Will it take hundreds of years for us to get there with space travel? Since Yuri Gagarin's inaugural flight, it's taken at least 53. This week has proven once again that the end to that wait is not yet in sight. Catastrophes will happen. Spacecrafts will be lost. Lives will be lost. But this planet isn't going to sustain us forever, even if we maintain it perfectly. Eventually, we have to go see what else is out there. And in order to get to the point where we can go see what's out there, we first have to make sure we can reliably get off this planet in the first place, and safely dock at our intended ports of call.

Nobody ever said space was easy.

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