Eighteen years ago today, in the second and last major catastrophe of the Space Shuttle program, we lost Columbia and her crew. Tragically, as with Challenger, this loss might have been avoidable had we found a better way to secure the insulating foam around the external tank that ended up breaking loose, damaging Columbia’s left wing, and leaving the shuttle’s airframe vulnerable to being pierced by hot gases on re-entry. On the other hand, judging such things foreseeable is often all too easy with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes in the dangerous endeavor of spaceflight, however diligently we may try to anticipate all scenarios and control all the variables, unexpected stuff happens and there’s not much we can honestly do but chalk our failures up to bad luck. There is danger in this grand adventure. We know it. And we go anyway.
Columbia had the proud distinction of being the first shuttle to fly. I remember learning about and watching that first flight from my 4th grade classroom in Los Angeles, and somewhere I probably still have the excited pencil scrawlings of my 4th grade self celebrating this human accomplishment and imagining myself one day as an astronaut taking the same journey to space.
Bill Whittle’s 2003 essay, Courage, written in the wake of the loss of Columbia, captures the magic and tragedy of it all in soaring poetry I have not seen surpassed anywhere. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
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.
Whatever short-term mitigation of circumstances may fall out of the election results (I am not counting on anything, and expect very little), my long-term view of what we should working on hasn’t changed. There remains a strong and determined movement in the culture toward people wanting the State to provide for them and shelter them from freedom’s inherent risks, and I don’t see that shift abating — either in terms of people’s desires, or the state mechanisms they put in place to fulfill them. Progressivism operates like a ratcheting mechanism (credit to Bill Whittle for that apt analogy): It advances persistently, by gradual increments, and is only rarely reversed in small and temporary ways. Those of us who yearn to live the joyful and free-wheeling life that America’s founding generation envisioned, and that their own risks and sacrifices made possible, need to make ready to head to a new frontier, for only by going where others fear to tread will we be able to build and enjoy a thriving freedom-loving Civilization again.
“The Way Out” remains my guiding compass in this endeavor. It’s a series I continue to ponder and will add to — along with the No Fear Pioneer podcast — as new ideas arise.
I’m also looking forward to hearing what Bill has been working on and hinting at on his Stratosphere Lounge podcast, as I’ve often found myself thinking along similar lines.
Freedom is a tremendous and precious inheritance. To develop our potential, thrive in it, and pass it along to each successive generation is our highest calling. I write here to give my thanks, and to seek ways we can cultivate the resilience, independence, courage, and indomitable spirit necessary to sustain a culture that cherishes liberty.