Monday, January 28, 2008

Playing it safe in space?

Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who first conquered Mt. Everest alongside Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 88.

The New York Times ran a good obituary of Hillary, not excluding Tenzing's contribution like many accounts do. I was most struck by this passage:

The imperial explorer is now an anomaly. Much energy has been expended in recent decades showing just how closely many adventurers have been associated with the more venal aspects of the past, how claims to territory and control have turned triumph into cruelty. In contrast, a new explorer is imagined. The postmodern pioneer is not heroic, but deferential, putting little at risk, desiring safety above adventure, consideration above assertion, breaking new ground by giving the old a different shape.

This has also affected notions of risk and safety. This is most evident in the once thriving United States space program, which, unlike almost every exploratory project in world history, is intensely sensitive to loss of life and mission failure, focused on a kind of hygienic pioneering. In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe showed how early astronauts were seen by traditional test pilots not as heroes, but as capsule-enclosed, passive creatures, padded and protected and stripped of initiative.


Is it that we have become spoiled by so much being easy and safe that we believe everything must be? Is this also why lovers of extreme sport seek such bizarre thrills (snowboarding down Everest!)? Otherwise "danger" is reserved for contestants on reality shows like "Survivor" and expunged from reality itself, which we believe should be subject to rational control.

I discussed this in my review of Matt Hern's Watch Yourself, where I postulated that progress requires risk. The space program (by which I mean the combined human endeavour to explore space, not any specific nation's efforts) has resulted in 22 deaths among astronauts/cosmonauts, or five percent of all people who've been in space.

Considering the high human cost that was involved in exploring this planet (which still occurs), is the human cost of space travel too high? This is a notion explored by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran in their excellent graphic novel, Orbiter. The space program is dead, the last nail in the coffin being the disappearance of a space shuttle. Years later, the shuttle returns, and a group of out-of-work space scientists are brought together to learn its mysteries...

The cynic in me wonders if the "human cost" of space exploration is the factor, or if the monetary cost is as much to blame. Does our trepidation of space travel have as much to do with the failure of Pathfinder as with the Columbia explosion? Is the instant disintegration of hundreds of millions of dollars and years of research too expensive a blow to our immediate gratification, consumerist, rate-of-return culture?