Taking spaceflight for granted

27 Sep

SpaceX launch

SpaceX launch

Anyone who knows me in person or online knows that when there is a rocket launch, I get excited. I watch the launches. I tweet along. I post and share videos of them. I even flew to Florida once with a good friend to take in a Shuttle launch (Orbiter Atlantis on STS-132 in May 2010).

I watched with great interest last week when an Antares rocket blasted off to the International Space Station with the new Cygnus vessel. I kept a very close eye yesterday as a Soyuz soared into space with three new astronauts, also bound for humanity’s most distant outpost.

But following such things so closely puts me in a small – perhaps a very small – minority.

Is this because the majority of people don’t care about spaceflight and exploration?

I don’t think so.

Looking at recent missions that got significant attention, we don’t have to go too far back: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield garnered significant attention from fans, on social media, and even in the mainstream media during his stay on the International Space Station.

Ditto NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, when it landed on Mars in August 2012.

People all over the world are passionate about spaceflight, exploration, and discovery. People are interested when special things happen.

And that last sentence is the crux of why people don’t pay attention to spaceflight.

Spaceflight isn’t seen as “special” – it’s considered routine. And routine things don’t make the news or become the topics of water cooler conversations in your office.

STS-132 launches. Courtesy NASA.

STS-132 launches. Courtesy NASA.

Now for the scientists, engineers, mission planners, astronauts, administrators, and everyone else involved in putting spaceflight together this is a good thing. The fact that the public sees spaceflight as routine is a credit to just how good they are at their jobs. They’re so good, executing consistently with such a high degree of precision, that they are able to make exceptionally difficult tasks appear easy.

But there is a downside to this excellence: public apathy to what are, in reality, incredible feats.

Every time a rocket launches there are millions of things that could go wrong. Any one of those things could jeopardize the mission – and perhaps endanger lives.

But the public has come to (correctly) expect that nothing will go wrong. They expect to hear in passing that there was another successful launch and humanity’s exploration of space continues. Next story.

The public is taking spaceflight for granted.

But this is not a wise state of mind. Spaceflight is incredibly challenging to achieve – and when success is taken for granted people become careless. Limits are pushed. Things go wrong.

People close to missions know this. They work hard to stay focused to ensure everything works perfectly, every time.

I submit, humbly, that the public should remember this as well.

There is nothing routine about spaceflight, and a couple minutes on the evening news or a few minutes of discussion around the water cooler would be a valuable nod to all the people who have worked so very hard to make it look so very easy.

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One Response to “Taking spaceflight for granted”


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