Is It Worth the Risk?

The astronaut who commanded the first shuttle flight after Challenger explains his decision.

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Back aboard Discovery, as the shuttle thundered into orbit, I was able to stop the awful speculation that would naturally spill out if I let it. At that point, we astronauts were along for the ride, with no real options other than to enjoy the thrill. I had launched twice before on the space shuttle, but was acutely aware of a key difference on this flight, mission STS-26. This time I couldn’t take comfort in the fact that NASA had never lost a crew to an inflight accident. Challenger was on all of our minds.

Still, I was convinced that this would be the safest shuttle flight ever, and had told my family so before the launch. NASA had spent the previous 20 months not only fixing the O-ring seal problem that had caused the Challenger accident, but studying in minute detail other shuttle systems to minimize the likelihood that another serious problem was lurking. The agency’s safety and quality control programs had been overhauled. Astronauts had been placed in management positions to ensure that throughout the decision process, the crew’s voice was heard.

For me anyway, there was a personal element to this sense of confidence. I was comforted knowing that my good friend Dick Truly had painstakingly overseen the Challenger reconstruction, and that Bob Crippen, who had commanded my first shuttle flight, was head of the review panel that had deemed our mission ready for flight just the day before. Tens of thousands of NASA and contractor employees had dedicated themselves to resurrecting the shuttle program. At the same time, I knew that there’s no such thing as perfection. Our safe return was not guaranteed.

That Discovery mission was designed to be as benign as possible. Get up and back safely, proving that NASA was back in the spaceflight business. And so we did.

Now, in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, we once again hear it debated: Is spaceflight worth the risk? I’ve been asked that several times since February 1, but I think the question needs to be more precise. What risk are we talking about? As a taxpayer who shoulders part of the financial burden of this grand enterprise, you should certainly get a vote on how the money is spent. But are you questioning whether I should risk my own life? My family has a right to weigh in on that—after all, they have huge emotional, and even financial, stakes in my decision. But why should you get a vote? Please leave matters of risk up to the astronauts and their families. They’ve made their choice.

The families of the Columbia crew said it eloquently in a joint statement written under the most difficult of circumstances, days after their tragic loss:

“Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on—for the benefit of our children and yours.”

The authors of that statement are painfully aware that astronauts take risks. They also know the real rewards of participating in a great adventure, of advancing frontiers and serving one’s country in the company of extraordinary colleagues. Only by taking such risks is society rewarded with increased knowledge and a sense of forward motion. And that, in the end, is what makes the risk worthwhile.

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