Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Discovery, Good to Go


In which we move from the recent success of the Discovery Channel Cycling Team to the ongoing success of the Discovery Space Shuttle....

As with Le Tour de France, hang in for a highly technical, challenging and - start to finish - compelling and dramatic Le Tour d'Orbit....

The theme is sort of the same, really, whether Le Tour or Lift Off - the stark, juxtaposition of fear and bravery, the tension, the orchestration of a very visual "human interest story." And there is the disparity between the audience, trained to be anxious spectators, mystified by the heights of human achievement, held in suspense (if they're paying attention), and the experts, trained to be matter-of-fact and so busy doing their jobs they don't have time to think twice or wax too poetic. Poetry is not their job. Whether Le Tour or Lift Off, man and machine. Whether Le Tour or Lift Off, the job is propulsion, carefully controlled propulsion.

Meanwhile, here's a theme that holds some water: neither great athletes nor great engineers nor able technicians make many great speeches. They're not often highly quotable - at least not a paragraph at a time.

I just watched the live news conference to spread the good news about the georgeous launch earlier this morning. There was, post-Columbia, more palpable relief and sentiment than usual at such a confluence of NASA nerds. But they were still NASA nerds. And it all comes down to the story - danger. A few days ago, CNN's Paula Zahn asked, "Is the shuttle safe? Will it ever be safe again?"

Well, it never was "safe," certainly not as safe as what we seem to want "safe" to mean - no errors, no mysteries, perfect, NO RISK.

Is your tub safe? Will it ever be? Is your car safe? Will it ever be? Why not ask about the risks you take driving your car, eating the foods you eat, taking the meds you do? There are definitely a set of things most likely to get you, I mean reach out and grab your mortal ass. And flying is not one of them. (Neither is terrorism or any sort of violent act. The point is: we fear "perceived threats" or "dangers" not statistically but sentimentally, and that's not rational. Still, to err is human....)

NASA gave the risk of shuttle failure upon this morning's launch as 1 in 200. Some say that's double the assumed risk as Columbia was headed toward lauch two and a half years ago.

We're not rational about relative risks because our brains are drawn toward drama. Fear comes faster than figuring out how to fix things, and we're speed junkies. So we're hard wired to be at least a little addicted to our fears. And these successful athletes and technicians are trained to ignore if not overcome or even negate those self-same fears.

That's why some of us participate and go for those heights ourselves. That's why billions more of us watch others go up and come down. Our fight or flight triggers are tickled. And this has, so far, been a big week for FLIGHT.

As was said back in the John Glenn days, "Godspeed." And we are still in the pioneering days of space flight, and so yes, "godspeed" to the stars - our human stars - earthbound and orbit bound, always vulnerable, always fragile.

"Godspeed" indeed.



At 7/27/2005 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, is this guy retired? Certainly must be with all the attention to tv, current events and writing extended boring blogs.Get a life!

At 7/28/2005 4:47 AM, Anonymous rq said...

Loved the phrase, "Reach out and grab your mortal ass!" Brought out a chuckle, even with its serious undertone.


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