Exploring Our Willingness To Go

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - August 17, 2005
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In the early morning of Tuesday, Aug. 9, most of Hawaii slept as the rest of America released a sigh of relief. The space shuttle Discovery, with its precious cargo of seven souls, touched down safely in the predawn Mojave chill. The spell had been broken and the specter of space ship Columbia’s disastrous re-entry two and a half years earlier could finally be put into perspective — a tragic aberration in a long line of extraordinary successes.

Still, the chunk of insulation foam that tore loose upon Discovery’s launch two weeks earlier was chillingly reminiscent of the same launch defect that had fatally wounded Columbia, so the long hiatus between missions was devoted to a fix for the problem. But the longer the Discovery mission had been delayed, the more time for doubting and skepticism and — yes — cold feet. And now we’re on “hold” again for a definitive solution to the foam problem. And for some the question nags: Do we still have the values and fortitude to be explorers? Do we still have the willingness to take on risk?

Aside from the continuing need to service the International Space Station — no small thing considering the considerable potential for true scientific discovery afforded by the orbiting laboratory — many contend the shuttle program should be abandoned, that space exploration is simply a luxury we can no longer afford. I might agree that given the magnitude of some of our “earthly” needs just now, some of the possible deep-space missions that have been proposed might be a little too esoteric or even superfluous, and there are valid arguments for different vehicles — both manned and unmanned — to accomplish them.


But one thing is for certain: After we have taken all reasonable measures to minimize the risks, we must go. Our heritage is exploration.

Last fall, NASA convened a panel of the world’s leading explorers — astronauts, mountaineers, probers of the deep oceans — to discuss the issues of risk and safety. Although they acknowledged the common axiom that “safety is the most important thing,” one of the panel members who, like the others, was well-acquainted with dangerous activities, observed, “No, in exploration, the most important thing is … to go!

Without our ancestors’ willingness “to go,” to accept the risks of the unknown, there would be no America as we know it today, and certainly no Hawaii.

Actually, civilization is founded upon risk. After the Columbia disaster, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jeff Howell, former Commander Marine Forces Pacific at Camp Smith and now director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, reminded his crew there that “the worst thing we could do is to stop exploring, too fearful of the risks the Columbia crew knew they were taking. That would dishonor their sacrifice.”

Dr. Jon Clark, husband of astronaut Laurel Clark, who perished in Columbia, while speaking to a group of students about his wife, quoted a poem she had written years before:

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk exposing our true selves.
To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try at all is to risk failure.
But risk we must!
Because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The man, the woman, who risks nothing, does nothing … has nothing, is nothing!

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