Hard to believe it’s been 35 years since we lost the Space Shuttle Challenger and her seven-member crew, in what turned out to have been a tragically avoidable accident. Challenger commission member Richard Feynman’s finding that the SRB O-rings’ lack of resiliency at low temperatures was known and raised as a concern by technicians, but not acted upon, gives us a hard-won lesson to remember. It’s a lesson that SpaceX seems to have internalized, in the form of Elon Musk’s reported insistence that any SpaceX employee at any level should be empowered to directly raise concerns that could delay a launch, and I hope others in the space industry have taken that same lesson to heart. Space is an inherently dangerous business, and there’s no need to make it artificially more dangerous by adding avoidable organizational problems to the mix.
Bill Whittle pointed out on last night’s Stratosphere Lounge that the anniversaries of the Apollo 1 cabin fire (January 27th, 1967), Challenger explosion (January 28th, 1986), and Columbia‘s disintegration (February 1st, 2003), which account for all NASA spaceflight fatalities, all happen to fall in a 10-day span on the calendar. I feel a debt to and tremendous admiration for those who knew the risks and went anyway, putting their lives on the line to advance the frontier of human knowledge, exploration, and achievement. Bill Whittle’s magnificent 2003 essay “Courage” (copy here) is about the most beautiful, poetic, and outright exhilarating piece I’ve ever had the privilege of reading about why we do such things. Take a few moments and give it a worthwhile read.