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Astronaut: Risks Continue In Space Travel, But It’s Worth It

By | June 12, 2006

      There is no guarantee of safety in space flight, because risks exist and will continue to confront travelers who venture beyond Earth, an astronaut said.

      But the benefits of penetrating, traveling and living in space are well worth the chance of harm, commander Bill McArthur said in an interview with Space & Missile Defense Report.

      If one is harmed or dies in space, it is in the cause of expanding the frontiers of the human race and exploring a new region, he said. That has meaning, while millions of Americans daily confront the chance of a meaningless injury or death merely by venturing onto interstate highways, not knowing if that 18-wheeler is about to come sailing at them across the median barrier, he observed.

      Risk is unavoidable in life, he said. “Going out on the freeway is not as safe as sitting at home,” yet countless motorists ply those roads daily.

      His comments come after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a fiery streak across the heavens during a Feb. 1, 2003, reentry, because of damage the spacecraft incurred earlier, during launch.

      As well, his remarks precede the launch July 1, or in a window of July 1 to 19, of the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

      His comments also come as some critics, including lawmakers, have voiced concerns that the Columbia loss is a sign that space travel is dangerous.

      McArthur, however, takes a different view.

      The question is not whether space travel is safe–no human activity is–but rather whether the risk is disproportionate, he said.

      He said the pertinent question about space travel is this: “Is it safe enough? Is it worth the risk?”

      With no doubt here, McArthur said, “the answer is clearly yes.”

      True, he said, human beings have died in the space program.

      In 1967, three astronauts in the Apollo I program died in a pre-flight test, when a fire ignited in the pure oxygen environment in the command module.

      In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed in an explosion shortly after liftoff because of an O ring failure in a booster, with all seven crew members lost.

      While tragic, McArthur said the point here is that “great accomplishments often require great sacrifices.”

      And there are accomplishments in each space flight, even those that end in disaster, he indicated.

      With each venture into space, he observed, “we expand human knowledge and we expand our ability to conduct” safe flight in the harsh environment of space.

      McArthur recently returned from service aboard the ISS.

      He is eager to see larger crews in future missions, because that will mean there will be more scientists to conduct experiments in space. Without those key personnel, an experiment, a bit of scientific research, may not be performed.

      As far as funding for the shuttle program, “I absolutely am” satisfied that financial support is adequate, McArthur said.

      The issue in the program is not fiscal, but rather whether the shuttle is safe to fly, he said.

      In a news conference, Wayne Hale, manager of the shuttle program, said in a video teleconference with journalists at NASA sites that Space Shuttle Discovery will fly when ready, and not until it is.

      One “cannot let the schedule drive you to make stupid mistakes,” he said. “We have a renewed commitment to not doing something stupid just to” maintain the schedule of shuttle launches, Hale said.

      He conceded that there is a quick turnaround time between the launch of Discovery, and the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis that could come as early as Aug. 28. “It is a short amount of time” between the launches, he said.

      Similarly, McArthur said each shuttle will fly only when it is as safe as it can possibly be made.

      To be sure, he added, it may be that NASA fails to comprehend where it is facing risks.

      Some events that might bear out McArthur’s contention: until the Challenger disaster, the problem with O rings wasn’t seen, and before Columbia flew its final mission, NASA leaders failed to appreciate the danger that a piece of insulating foam could break loose during launch and cause damage leading to loss of the spaceship and crew.

      “We were accepting risk” without knowing it, McArthur said, because the danger wasn’t divined by engineers and others.

      But even where risk is known and can’t be eliminated, that doesn’t mean the United States should lose the will to press on in exploring the final frontier, McArthur indicated.

      He was asked about President Bush’s vision of returning to the moon, followed by manned missions to Mars, and to other points in the solar system.

      Some skeptics wonder whether a federal government awash in budget deficits and Treasury borrowing, while facing the need to provide income to a growing number of elderly citizens, won’t be able to afford major space missions.

      But McArthur takes an opposite view.

      A return to major missions in space will happen, McArthur said.

      “I absolutely intend to still be working at NASA when we return to the moon,” said the 54-eyar-old astronaut. And he predicted that a human being will step onto the soil of Mars “within my lifetime.”

      He is unsure about the timing of missions to more distant destinations, noting that it requires “incredible power” just to lift a spaceship into low-earth-orbit.

      Thus, perhaps he will not see “missions beyond Mars within my lifetime.”

      Someday, however, even those far-flung points, millions of miles distant, will be explored by the human race, he said.

      In all of this, he said, it is likely that major space missions will be a multi-national effort, rather than an initiative of the United States alone.

      “Do I think this will be only a U.S. effort?” he asked. “I hope not.”

      This veteran of service aboard the ISS said the multi-national artificial moon circling Earth, an effort backed by 16 nations, proves that disparate nations can forge common bonds as they send their citizens beyond the confines of the planet.

      A key point is that in space missions, “the problems aren’t open to much interpretation,” McArthur said, even if the best solution may be open to argument.

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