As I peruse the science news headlines this morning, it occurs to me that we must value human life a lot more than we did back in the days when people would load their families onto dank, creaking sailing ships, or into fragile ox-drawn wagons, and set off across the Great Unknown in the hopes of finding a better life someplace else.
We will never know the true number of explorers and frontiersmen, immigrants and innovators, who lost their lives along the trail, or who were buried in the bosom of the sea, or who crashed and burned while reaching for a piece of the future. Surely the numbers must be in the thousands, but that did not stop Mankind from leaving the cramped comfort of his familiar home to place his footprints on distant shores, trying to find a better life for himself and his posterity.
Yet because some twenty-two people, Russians and Americans, have died in the pursuit of space exploration, we as a people have lost interest in manned space flight. As far as we are concerned, the cost is just too great to bear.
True, space flight is expensive, and when a mission fails, it does so spectacularly, in front of the camera, for all the world to see.
And so NASA is backing away from manned missions, leaving the field open for private industry to take the lead. While it is true that most of our great advancements have been made by the private sector--especially when fortunes are to be made--one has to wonder about the chilling effect an accident would have when the passengers are not trained, professional astronauts, but tourists with deep pockets who were only out for the ride of a lifetime.
As tragic as the space disasters have been, each and every person who lost his or her life knew the risk they were taking when they strapped in. They trained for their missions, and they accepted the dangers. It came with the territory.
What will happen to the civilian space industry if and when there is a fatal accident? Will the public decide that space exploration just isn't worth the enormous cost--even though more people die in a single aviation accident than have died over the entire course of manned spaceflight?
The fact is, airline travel, although risky, and now often inconvenient, uncomfortable, and demeaning, is necessary. There are just places you can't go to efficiently unless you fly there. So people are willing to ignore the dangers and continue to board airplanes.
But flying in space is something most people think is unnecessary and not worth the cost. A fatal accident in the neophyte industry would destroy the future of mankind in space for years to come, if not forever.
So let us hope that, despite a lack of proctological oversight and governmental bureaucracy such as NASA had to deal with, these up-and-coming frontiersmen approach private sector space flight with exquisite care.
The world will be watching.
"If you fail, it should be because you pushed to the frontier. Failure due to poor craftsmanship is not an option." --John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science and a former space shuttle astronaut, quoted in "Scientists See Big Rewards (and Risks) In Private Spaceflight" by Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com