by Jeff Cunningham
Jeff here, making my triumphant return to the fight after landing my dream job and getting my affairs in order for once. It’s a shame, though, that my first update here couldn’t be under more positive circumstances. For the past couple of days, mainstream media and social networks have been running with headlines that tend to share one common phrase: Last week was “a bad week for private space.”
- This past Tuesday, an Antares rocket made by Orbital Sciences, exploded about 15 seconds into its flight to deliver supplies, science experiments, and nanosatellites to the International Space Station
- During a test flight on Friday by Scaled Composites, makers of the SpaceShipTwo craft and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier ship that Virgin Galactic intends to use to carry paying tourists into space with, suffered an in-flight anomaly, ending in a crash and the death of one of its pilots and major injuries to another.
There’s plenty of people more qualified than we are to report on the accidents themselves–and besides, we have no desire to trivialize and water down a man’s life with the “talking head” speculation we all have come to loathe.
At the same time, though, it saddens us to see so many people wringing their hands in response to this and saying things along the lines of “gee, I guess this goes to show that we really can’t trust them to do this sort of thing…” It’s something that, obviously, we kinda feel strongly about and feel that it’s too important not to respond to. It’s difficult to comment on, though, because the issue, to my mind, is rooted in differences in moral values and ethical priorites. Please, please, for the love of Wash’s plastic dinosaurs, do not construe what I will try to say as some sort of political statement in any way, shape or form. If you or someone you know does, please shoot them (“politely”) with a water pistol, or find some other way to get cold water in contact with their faces by any means necessary.
So, the argument, in essence, is, “because private individuals in civilian spaceflight do not have a 100% track record of perfect safety, they should not be allowed to endanger their own lives.” Much has already been said about our society’s tolerance for risk (or lack thereof), with many citing historical analogies to the many deaths that occurred well after the Wright brother’s first flight–not just test pilots, mind you, but ordinary passengers. I’ve got nothing to add to that that hasn’t already been said.
No, I thought I’d focus on another facet to this. Consider the following: Most of us as individuals see nothing wrong with allowing other people to do things like smoking tobacco, drinking hazardously large amounts of alcohol, and engaging in other behaviors that we all can agree are dangerous and at least a little self-destructive. What’s more, the majority of us would become upset (or at least, very, very suspicious) of any Alliance powers that be who come in and propose removing such rights from us “for our own protection”–even those of us who choose not to partake in such behaviors.
As a society, we all for the most part respect an individuals right to be “irresponsible”–all right, I can’t avoid quoting Cap’n Mal any longer, to misbehave–even if it causes harm to themselves, so long as it doesn’t harm others. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that Western cultures hold it sacred. Why, then, would anyone have a problem with that same person recklessly endangering themselves at the end of a rocket instead of a cigarette? It’s not like letting them do so causes others harm. Who’s ever died from “secondary spaceflight?” What has them crying “they shouldn’t be allowed to do that?” What has them so scared?
I have a theory, if you’ll indulge me, that centers on that word, scared. Embedded in our genes is an epic drama, told over many millennia, of a relentless struggle for survival. Our ancestors had to fight just to take their next breath of air. Now, suddenly, that caveman is thrust into an alien world where food, water and shelter provided for him, a land overflowing with the fruits of the Earth, but barren of hardship itself. With no hunting, no tribal wars, and no life-and-death battles, our instincts are screaming at us. We weren’t meant to live like this, and it’s driving us insane.
This is why people continue to pay top dollar for theme parks, slasher films (because really, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all), and will pay premium rates to watch other people visit what Jayne would call “iminent violence” upon one another. It’s also why people rage at each other online: in the absence of a real conflict, we’ll just make one up. The result is the same, namely, that we’re all driven to seek out and experience vicarious risk. We can’t wait to shell out the credits just to pretend, even if only for a moment, that we’re in actual danger, that that’s us out there.
So, when someone starts all that business about “they shouldn’t be allowed to launch themselves into space,” I don’t believe they’re really talking about taking away another’s rights, at least intentionally–they’re really saying “that’s too dangerous for me,” because they’ve subconsciously strapped themselves into that seat without realizing it, and imagining facing that danger causes their pants to “take on a brownish color,” if you get what I mean. They’re just failing to separate other people voluntarily assuming risk from themselves.
That doesn’t diminish the issue that still lies at the very core of it all: whether or not individuals have an inherent right to make choices for themselves. With elections in the United States, I was worried that some reading this would mistakenly ascribe this to politics. I assure you that that this is certainly not the case, and besides, what would you expect from Browncoats and fans whose captain famously said, “there’s a lot of fine ways to die, and I’m not letting [someone else] choose mine” and punctuated it with a gunshot?
The unfortunate setbacks and tragic incident of the past week will not stop the truly determined from doing the impossible. In fact, shortly after the accident that claimed the life of the Virgin Galactic pilot, people have come forward to buy tickets just to show their support, and people continue to open up new ventures to take their very own ship out into the Black. See, we forget about the other, unseen casualties of incidents like this: the armies of hard–working engineers and technicians, some of the most brilliant and passionate, selflessly devoted people out there–true Browncoats in every sense of the word–who now lay awake at night tormenting themselves and asking”Was it my fault? What did I miss? What could I have done to prevent this?” The same thing happened to countless young people at NASA after the Apollo I fire claimed the lives of three American heroes without leaving the ground.
For a while now, many, many people have pitched in to help us get the first manned Dragon spacecraft named Serenity by writing SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. We’re eternally grateful for your help and continued support. Right now, though, why not take a moment today to make a quick post on on Virgin Galactic’s Facebook page, email Orbital, or tweet SpaceX, just to say “Hey, I know you’re taking lots of flak, but I think what you’re doing is awesome.” It doesn’t seem like much, but take it from me as someone who’s walked in the world of aerospace that that little bit of encouragement does a lot to help these hard-working men and women keep on flyin’. They “do the impossible,” and that not only makes them mighty, they also work to bring you a future where, just like the crews of Serenity, the Millennium Falcon, and others, you too can be free to seek your fortune among the stars.