Gregg Easterbrook unfairly twists facts about the Boeing 747 in his article (Opinion, May 18), "Troubled Flights Ahead for U.S. Space Program." He recites various rocket launcher failure rates and notes that a Space Shuttle failure would eventually occur, because "a percentage of conventional airplanes fail and crash--as a Boeing 747 did in Japan last year, its tail section flying apart without clear cause."
This statement is inaccurate and unfair for two reasons. First, it is questionable to compare space launcher failure rates with the operational history of the Boeing 747. More than 600 of these big aircraft operate around the world, making more than two hundred thousand flights a year. Despite the 747 tragedy in Japan last year, more than 5 million people traveled to their destinations safely last year flying on 747s. The chance of dying on a 747 flight is less than one-thousandth of 1% . Compare that remarkable rate with the rocket failure rates of 4%, 6% and 7% that Easterbrook cites, and you wonder why he mentioned the 747 at all.
Second, there was a clear cause of the tail section failure that happened on the 747 in Japan, although Easterbrook ignores it in an effort to make his far-fetched comparison. The tail on the 747 was blown off because the rear cabin pressure bulkhead failed, and that happened because of a faulty repair job to that 747 after its tail was damaged in a previous ground accident.