So what happens to piloted spaceflight?

On Saturday, I was very glad that I don’t have a television. There’s nothing worse than hearing the same thing over and over. I didn’t learn about the disintegration of the Columbia Shuttle until at least 6 or so hours after the fact. Getting my news via the Internet allowed me a necessary distance from this event. And it makes me think.

This may sound rather cold but I don’t think Columbia’s disintegration means that much in the long term. I strongly doubt that it will add much delay to our eventual settlement of space. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure it is a terrible tragedy for the families and friends of all the astronauts on that mission but in a grander sense, we should come to expect and accept more disasters and deaths.

Human spaceflight has always carried risk. The Russians, who’ve had more deaths and disasters in spaceflight than the United States has had, have always known and accepted this. They’ve continued onwards regardless. For them it was, and still is, a matter of demonstrating scientific and technical prowess and national pride. Perhaps, if anything, they’ve been overzealous in their pursuit of feats in space at the expense of human safety but, the United States might do well to take a similar position. If we, as a species, are serious about expanding into and settling outer space, we must accept that there are going to be many more deaths and catastrophes.

Astronautics is supposed to make space routine. Some have complained about the loss of romance and have worried that the public’s attention has wandered and that “space is boring.” But that’s just the point. Space is supposed to become boring. It’s suppose to be the dull yet real place where people will eventually live and work. The time is supposed come where nobody will find cosmonauts interesting anymore–or at least no more interesting than airline pilots or truck drivers. Bluntly, when we reach the point where events like Saturday’s explosion are no more newsworthy than most other industrial disasters, when they don’t shake our resolve to continue, to learn from our error and to still try again, we will have succeeded. Many thousands more die in automobile wrecks every year, yet we don’t stop driving and ban cars. Eventually spaceflight will be like this.

I am also not very concerned if the United States pulls out of space exploration and development. There are plenty of other industrialized or developing countries that have expressed the interest in spaceflight. Eventually someone will fill the vacuum. Even still, I don’t think it likely that the United States will pull out of spaceflight, if only for crass, military reasons.

Personally, I’ve always been more interested in robotic space missions than human ones. This is because they are much cheaper and give us far more scientific knowledge–they are more interesting to me to read about. Even after our spatial infrastructure matures and we’ve terraformed Venus and Mars and we’ve engineered our biology to so that we can survive in low gravity, robots will always vastly outnumber humans (Or our descendants.) in outer space.

But I know that one day humans, in one form or another, will be permanently settled in the solar system and perhaps even the nearby stars. This will ensure the extreme long term survival of civilization and I support that. Taking the long view, this current calamity may delay this eventual settlement by a few years but this delay will eventually be insignificant. We need to accept that more events like this are certain to happen again even as we work to reduce the likelyhood of failure in the future. That’s the price that must be paid. Technology will continue to improve and some risks and costs will diminish but they will never fall to zero. We need to remember this.

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