Barry SCHWARTZ (Barijo ŜVARC) (chemoelectric) wrote,

More Martian braindeath

I’m finishing up this ‘Mission to Mars’ issue of Spectrum and just have read an article by David A. Mindell called ‘The end of the cult of the astronaut: how do you justify human spaceflight?’ The article starts by giving an alternate scenario for the Columbia disaster, in which the occupants, reacting to the foam-breakage event, bail out into the ISS and let the space shuttle, having been automated, returns safely by itself to earth on its own. The rest of the article boils down to this: we should get rid of the superjock astronauts, automate spacecraft more, and fill them with people who are ‘good communicators’ and can describe their experience well – and we should do this rather than go all robotic, on the grounds that manned spaceflight is (I’m paraphrasing) ubercool.

Mr. Mindell seems to be an MIT industrial engineering professor; thus I’ll have to assume he wrote the article while drunk. Think about it – when have US astronauts been killed, dramatically? First, there was the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts perished horribly, in part because the original Apollo capsule design, unlike a fighter aircraft flown by superjock test pilots, was designed so you couldn’t get out of it easily. Second, there was the Challenger disaster. At the time, astronauts went through launch dressed in jumpsuits and without pressure suits of any kind, because flying in the space shuttle was supposed to be like climbing into a cargo plane; and this flight was particularly notable for having on board a public school teacher, whose job it was to ‘communicate’ her experience. She and six other astronauts died horribly (possibly only after impact with the ocean), and subsequent space shuttle launches were done wearing suits – although this wouldn’t have done the Challenger crew any good, it did end the fiction that climbing into a space shuttle was like boarding a cargo plane. However, NASA continued to treat space shuttle flight as if it were no big deal, and thus we had seven more astronauts die in the Columbia disaster.

For Mindell to begin his article with an alternate Columbia scenario consisting of wishful-thinking counterfactuals, and to use this as the opening of an article in favor of stuffing spacecraft with lecturers and schoolteachers and leave out the test pilots and such, is simply to insult my brain.

Ubercoolness is a dumb reason to send people to Mars. If I had to justify it, I would say sending people to Mars is like putting Jack Schmitt on the moon – as a geologist, he was a good judge of what rocks to pick up. It was worth putting him on the moon for that.

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