USA Today has published a great opinion piece by Rand Simberg, who boldly states that “NASA’s mission is not safety“. [Phil Plait agrees.]
I couldn’t agree more. Safety cannot–and should not–be the top priority if we are going to have a program that is affordable and actually accomplishes anything.
Does that in any way trivialize the lives and well being of astronauts? Absolutely not. It’s a recognition that space exploration is inherently dangerous: risk will always be there, and safety goes too far when it blunts our ability to actually do anything meaningful.
Respect for the bravery, sacrifice and achievement of explorers is a central them of In the Shadow of Ares. We honor them by pressing on with the mission.
Last week marked the anniversaries of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents. Those old enough to remember one or more of those tragedies recall the feelings of shock and sadness. Eventually we moved on, however, recommitting ourselves to the noble endeavor of manned space exploration.
But what if a spacecraft vanished without a trace? And what if, decades later, you had the chance to solve a mystery that most had given up on, even if they hadn’t forgotten? That’s the challenge facing 14-year-old Amber Jacobsen:
There was an ocean of data from the Ares missions and the subsequent exploration and settlement of the planet…surely there was some clue, something that had been missed. She looked up at the portraits again. What if it was right in front of everyone, and they couldn’t see it, because they were still thinking like Earthers?
But shewasn’t an Earther. She looked around the cabin at the memorials to the Ares III crew. Mars was her world, the only one she’d ever known. If something had been missed, maybe she could see it. Why shouldn’t she be the one to find the truth? “I’ll do it.”
“What’s that?” Aaron had drifted over to the other side of the cabin.
“Find out what happened. You know, figure it out. I’m gonna do it.”
What would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?
This week marks the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, and the 8th anniversary of the Columbia accident.
Each of these accidents were heavily publicized and widely mourned, with the latter two happening (essentially) live on television. Even though much time has passed, the accidents are well known to the general public, and even many people who are not space buffs could probably at least come close to identifying the official cause of each accident.
In each case, though, the wreckage was retrieved and studied, lessons were (mostly) learned and put into practice, and the affected programs continued on. But what would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?
This is exactly the problem which confronts the fictional Ares Project two decades before the events of In the Shadow of Ares. So how did they handle it?
The program was halted for four years so that the habs and Earth-return vehicles under construction on Earth could be thoroughly inspected and their designs reassessed for hidden flaws. Finding none, and still having no solid evidence of what happened to the Odysseus and its crew, the project proceeded cautiously with the remaining two missions. And as it turned out, the program was right to accept the still-unknown risks inherent in exploration rather than give up and stay home.
One big difference between then and then: with no images of the accident, and no wreckage found by the subsequent missions, the public soon forgot about Ares III. Except for a few who kept the memory alive until an answer could be found…
(For those who have read the book and may be wondering, we devised Odysseus‘ demise exactly fifty weeks before Columbia met her own.)