Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.
We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.
This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.
Then, on January 28th, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L had a tragic launch that killed everyone onboard including the first private citizen to fly, Christa McAullife. That investigation found that several problems with the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters caused a leak that damaged the external tank which then produced a huge fireball and caused the shuttle to break up from extreme aerodynamic stress.
Finally on February 1st, 2003, another tragedy, this time with the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107). Foam insulation from the external tank damaged the shuttle’s heat protection and the vessel burned up on re-entry, scattering debris over several states.
Every year around this time, NASA remembers these astronauts and other crew who have died in training accidents that aren’t quite as famous. It makes you sad to think of these men and women who died in these early days of mankind reaching for the stars. But, if you think about it, people die every day for less. It is a rare day that I don’t hear on the news about someone killed in a car accident. Perhaps they were driving to work or coming home from a meal. They certainly weren’t going to Earth orbit or the moon.
So what makes these deaths of such public interest? I think part of it is we feel like the astronauts are heroes and role models. Their deaths affect us more than some random stranger’s. Beyond that, it is human nature to fixate on the spectacular. A school bus crashing will make the news. But a passenger jet crashing will make the news for days and spark a lengthy investigation.
Car crashes don’t make us all work from home. School bus accidents don’t turn us all to homeschooling. The space programs will go on and–in fact–the recent trend to going to commercial spaceflight may have big benefits for the hacker community.
Already we’ve seen a big increase in the number of CubeSats launched. Getting a piece of hardware in orbit would have been almost impossible for a small group or individual in 1965 (there were rare exceptions). Now it is practically commonplace. Riding those first commercial manned flights will be costly. But once they are successful, that cost will come down. More people will explore space and learn things we can’t even imagine today. I can’t help but think that the fallen astronauts would find this a fitting legacy.
Who will want to go to space? Dreamers. Poets. Artists. Of course, too, will be us hackers. I don’t know who will be the first hacker in space (or, at least, the first hacker in space not being paid by a government). But I’d bet it will still be someone reading this right now. What would you do if it were you?