The exploration of space has been a childhood dream and inspiration for countless engineers across the world over the past 50 years. Those who witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on TV will never forget the moment. Those who witnessed the break-up of the space shuttle Columbia and the pictures of the debris strewn over large stretches of the US will never forget that either.
After two fatal accidents less than two decades apart the space programme now looks less promising than at any time since Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon. The film about the near-miss of Apollo 13 struck an emotional chord, reinforcing the new-found public perception of space flight as too risky, with insufficient return.
Why, people ask, do we need to visit the moon again? Why do we need to send more people into orbit? We’ve been there, done that, got the rock samples. It’s time to start setting more realistic goals closer to home.
Ironically, just before the Columbia accident space had looked more exciting than ever. Space flight for civilians never looked so close, after Dennis Tito’s trip into orbit. Optimists proclaimed that within our lifetimes it would no longer cost millions of dollars to secure a passage – tickets would be within the reach of ordinary people. And Nasa was gazing hopefully towards Mars.
In the wake of the accident President Bush has publicly stood firm in his commitment to space exploration and experimentation. Though the accident was awful and frightening, he told the US people it would not deter science.
We must hope that Bush keeps to his promises with regard to space – because the benefits of the space programme, in terms of experimentation, in terms of exploration, in terms of engineering, are still as great as they ever were.
The problem that the Columbia accident highlighted was that of the public perception of risk. As life has become much safer for most nations since World War II we seem to have grown more and more reluctant to countenance risk of any kind. We seem to have become more fearful, even as the world has grown less scary.
Examples can be seen everywhere. The stock market takes a plunge – and investors cry out in anger. But whoever said that shares could keep rising strongly every year?
A few days of snow brings chaos to UK roads. But no one wants to foot the bill for having snowploughs on standby throughout winter just in case. A report is written that links the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism, on questionable evidence. And the result is that, as vaccination levels fall below the level necessary to ensure adequate coverage of the population, all children now run a far greater risk of measles.
We see the corollary of this aversion to risk in the rise of the compensation culture that is rife in the US and seems to be spreading to the UK. To devotees of compensation, there are no accidents in life for which we cannot find someone to blame.
In some cases, this aversion to risk in one area leads perversely to rises in risk elsewhere. Take speed bumps. They have been introduced in urban areas all over the country to cut drivers’ speed, as the roads grow ever more crowded. The Greater London Authority is proposing that a large slice of the money from the congestion charge should be spent on still more speed bumps in London. Yet while the results in a decrease in road accidents have yet to be seen, ambulance chiefs warn that public health is endangered because ambulances have been so seriously slowed down in their efforts to reach patients in emergencies.
We need to start getting real about risk. We need to learn to accept that modern life is safer than ever, but that it will never be completely safe – even leaving aside the threat of dirty bombs and chemical attacks. And we need to champion the cause of risky endeavours if the benefits they hold out warrant their completion.
Clearly those in the scientific professions have a strong interest in ensuring that projects of great possible benefit but accompanying risk do go ahead. This holds true in all branches of science, from genetic modification and cloning through to space exploration. We cannot allow fear to hold us back.
For engineers risk analysis is a well-recognised discipline. No major project can go ahead without a clear-sighted investigation into the possible failures, and the impact on public or employee safety. Engineers can lead the way in educating the public about the real meaning of risk, and how to balance it against reward.
The astronauts aboard Columbia knew that they were risking their lives, and still took part in the space mission. Their example should inspire courage, not cowardice.
Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.