Television footage of a shuttle crew getting ready for a launch had become so commonplace as to seem mundane--about as interesting as watching a group of commuters eat breakfast before climbing aboard Amtrak. But people with expertise in the subject of space exploration have always perceived a certain tension behind the astronauts' image of casual resolve.
"Space enthusiasts have been thinking about possible disasters for some time," explained Gregory Benford, a Nebula award-winning science-fiction author and professor of physics at UC Irvine who recently completed a design study for the California Space Agency on "high-tech fusion rocketry."
"Part of the bravery of these astronauts is that they have made it look so safe and so easy," Benford said Tuesday morning, about 15 minutes after learning that the space shuttle Columbia had exploded shortly after launch. "Politically, the space program has been managed (in such a way as) to reassure the public that the dangers are always minimized.
"That's part of the reassuring imagery of NASA. But it's not reality. I read a study a decade ago of the shuttle, and I don't remember exact figures, but the risk calculated was at the level of about 1%. That is, it was known that there was probably going to be one flight lost out of the first 100. So I think everyone interested in space understood this was going to happen."
Although he called NASA's desire to project an image of near infallibility "inevitable and necessary," Benford lamented that such an impression left the American public unprepared for the sort of losses it witnessed Tuesday.
"I think subconsciously people associate the safety of the space program with the safety of air travel. . . . But, of course, the two technologies aren't at all the same," Benford said. "We're always going to incur losses. Every frontier has a price. . . . No technology is risk free, as everyone who's cut themselves on a can opener knows."
Michael Cassutt of Van Nuys, who is completing a biographical book on the world's astronauts to be titled "Space Travelers: 1961 to 1986," was on the telephone listening to Dial-a-Shuttle--a national phone line that allows citizens to eavesdrop on space center operations--when the spacecraft exploded. "It was especially horrifying for me. I literally got ill when the woman's voice (on the telephone) said 'there is something terribly wrong,' " Cassutt said.
Cassutt said that for him there was an almost eerie aspect to the tragedy because he had been talking about just that sort of thing last weekend while watching the Voyager II Uranus fly-by at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
"I was having a conversation with some people at JPL, and they were commenting that no one has been killed, since literally almost 19 years ago today, when the Apollo flight blew up on the launch pad. They were saying how remarkable that is, given the real apprehension NASA felt during the first two shuttle flights.
"I've had one flight director tell me that he expected a major problem--not something like this, but a life-threatening problem--during one of the first two flights because of the uniqueness of the shuttle itself."
One thing that Cassutt found interesting in researching and comparing the Russian and the American space programs is that the Soviets are extremely conservative about safety, he said. "To an extent, they are more conservative than NASA. They never fly without unmanned test flights first, whereas the first shuttle flight had people on it."
Russians Have More Fatalities
Despite this caution, though, the Russians have had more fatalities, Cassutt said.
"The reason is, when you're dealing with rockets, you're dealing with bombs; you're dealing with explosives. Yet we all get real casual about it because we expect it to go off on time. We think of it as a commuter train. People criticize NASA for delays and weather. (They ask) why can't we get this off the ground when we were supposed to? The fact is, we're dealing with things that explode."
Cassutt himself has never forgotten that, he said. He often watches coverage of the crew going about the routine preparations for a space flight. But he never views them with complaisance. "I've always thought of it as a sort of preparation for battle," he said.
Like Benford and Cassutt, Jerry Pournelle, the chairman of the Citizens' Advisory Council on Space Policy and a former research specialist with Boeing Corp. during the Gemini and Mercury space programs, is concerned that the public's shock over the shuttle tragedy will translate into decreased support for space exploration.
"Look, in the real world, whenever you build a skyscraper, you can predict not only the money costs but, to a fair degree, what it's going to cost in lives. And you may insure (the project) accordingly. When you start putting high steel in the air, you know someone's going to be killed. But we don't shut down high steel projects.