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some more coverage on the shuttle


Obviously it was all over the news, but I found the New York Times' coverage to be pretty good. In their lead article they go over possible causes and mention something that I thought was interesting:

The space agency, which spent tens of millions of dollars improving safety after the Challenger accident, has estimated the risk of a calamitous event on re-entry as 1 in 350.
Now, if that's the estimate (I imagine based on a lot of guesswork, since a re-entry event implies a catastrophic failure of some kind) then considering that this was the 113th flight of the shuttle, it doesn't seem to be terribly off the mark. It does "feel" a bit low (specially considering that the original plan was to fly it once a week at least, then at that rate of failure you could expect one "calamitous event on re-entry" ever six years or so. Not good.

A lot of the coverage has focused on the Israeli astronaut on board. This article has a paragraph that caught my eye:

In a twist of nomenclature that would seem plausible only in fiction, a craft carrying Col. Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force apparently broke up near an East Texas town called Palestine.
Blind coincidence has a way of making us feel strange, doesn't it? I mean, a town in Texas called Palestine...

William Gibson also has an entry on his blog to which I relate a lot.

Another article talks in more detail about the possibility that it was a failure in the heat shield tiles, which I assume was what was on most people's minds when they found out about it. I've seen many news reports today going over the much-mentioned "lift off incident" where foam debris from the external tank below the orbiter when the shuttle left a little more than two weeks ago hit the left wing, and it's incredible that they are (simply by repetition) "convincing themselves" that this was the cause. It's unlikely that it will be just that. At a minimum, a series of things must have gone wrong. It might be something else altogether. Too bad this time Richard Feynman is not around to straighten things up for all those bureaucrats. (There is an excellent account of his role in the Challenger disaster investigation in his book What do you care what other people think?).

This is probably my last entry on the Columbia for a while. It's sad, and tragic, but we humans have a bad tendency of focusing on dramatic events in places that give them enough coverage. Just yesterday, as the first reports of the Columbia were coming in, a bomb exploded in Lagos, Nigeria, killing dozens of people. And yet hours after that it was clear what had happened to the shuttle was a catastrophic failure and all the astronauts had perished, hours after it was clear that little could be said that hadn't already been said (or speculated out loud), coverage of the bomb in Africa in non-US news was limited to (literally) a three-second bit of "By the way, a bomb exploded in Nigeria. Dozens are feared dead." Coverage in supposedly more "international" US-news stations like CNN was nil. I assume that in part it's also a matter of expectations and where we put our dreams. Technology plays its part too, we naturally gravitate to its origin (namely, the US). But it always gives me a deep sense of unease that we seem to worry more about the fate of certain people than that of others. Not that I'm immune to that, I'm just aware of that in myself (and certainly on the news) and I don't like it too much, and I don't even know if it could change.

Anyway, that's a different topic. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Later: Just saw Russ has an entry talking about similar things. I agree that the media is a big driver behind this. But there's also something deeper. Before Big Media existed people still felt affected when, say, the King died, but barely lifted a finger when their neighbor passed away, as it was 'a fact of life'. This ties in with what I was saying a couple of paragraphs above about expectations, dreams, etc. Hopefully over time we'll learn to find some balance...

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on February 2 2003 at 7:21 PM

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