At this very moment there is a team of highly skilled professionals who are out of sight and largely out of mind, yet they have been tasked with solving an almost unimaginably difficult puzzle. They work for the NTSB and their charge is to figure out exactly what went wrong last week aboard SpaceShipTwo, the private sector launch system being developed by Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and a collection of truly gifted engineers, technologists, craftsmen, and pilots.
As you may recall, SpaceShipTwo came apart during a test flight, killing one test pilot and injuring another.
After achieving one jubilant success after another, the testing crews have experienced the wrenching drama that has been so much a part of the life and work of pioneers through the ages. A fatal accident happened. It happened to them, not somebody else. They didn’t read about it in the papers, they experienced the pain and suffering of the loss personally.
Tragedy is unfortunately a part of this business. It always has been. It always will be.
Historically we hear pleas at a time like this for a finding, the discovery of some specific piece of information that will allow us to prevent this from ever happening again.
Unfortunately, “this” means different things to different people.
To those in the field, “this” is a literal term indicating the exact circumstance that occurred. “This” means the failure that led to a fatality.
To the layman “this” might very well represent the idea of a fatal accident, not the cause of the accident. And that misunderstanding can create an impediment to progress as people with minimal understanding of the project begin to insist on a 100% safe program for the future.
Safe is a word that is often abused in our culture. Not because safety is an unworthy goal. It is very worthy.
Anyone with children strives for safety in their day-to-day lives. But anyone with children also knows that complete safety is unattainable.
Test pilots know it too. The history of their profession indicates a great irony of life. To do the work required to achieve a reasonable level of safety for a new technology, accidents will occur. Some of those accidents will result in injury or death. No reasonable person is happy about that.
Test crews set the bar high, work hard to maintain a high level of safety even as they work to move the project forward. But they’re delving into new areas of performance. They’re pioneers going where nobody has gone before. And sometimes their planning, their assumptions, and their testing proves to be inadequate.
Bad things happen to good people. That has always been true. It continues to be true today and will continue to be true for as long as humans walk the earth or fly above it.
The Wright brothers weren’t just the first to fly a heavier than air machine, they were also the first to suffer a crash that killed a passenger. Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic on his non-stop flight from New York to Paris, but half a dozen men were killed in pursuit of that goal before he launched from Roosevelt Field. The jet age brought a comfortable shirt-sleeve environment to trans-oceanic turbine powered passenger flights, but two De Havilland Comets broke up in flight in the early 1950s, killing all aboard. The U.S. lost astronauts on the ground and in flight as the space program developed, as did the Soviet Union, losing multiple cosmonauts along the way.
Even knowing all this, we persist in our efforts to expand our knowledge, advance technology, and reach for answers that will lead us into a future that provides an enhanced version of today.
Risk is inherent to progress, just as it is inherent to stagnation. Because life involves risk no matter what you do — or don’t do.
The difference for the aviation minded is that we accept that risk. We do our very best to mitigate it, to improve on what we know and upgrade our skills and equipment over time. But we know the truth: There will be accidents. The unforeseen and unimagined will occasionally rise up and cause harm to those who push the boundaries of what humans can do.
All progress comes at a cost. Sometimes that cost is quite high. But this particular tragedy brings to mind a tragedy of my youth.
I was in the fifth grade when the Apollo 1 fire happened. The day afterward, my teacher took the bulk of our school day to talk to my class about what had happened. She talked about the space program and what it meant for the future of mankind. She talked about the kind of men who rode the elevator up to the Apollo capsule, climbed inside, and prepared themselves for a flight into outer space. She even reminded us of the untold thousands who were working on the project but would never see the inside of a space capsule. The message she shared with my peers and me remains as valid today as it did then. I’m fortunate to have been there to hear it first-hand.
The people who do this work know it is dangerous. They don’t revel in that knowledge. Rather, they put their best efforts into making the impossible possible, to transform the incredibly risky into the reasonably safe. To move mankind into the future one technological baby step at a time. They’re doing their best to create a better, brighter, more rewarding life for the rest of us.
And sometimes bad things happen to them as a result. Progress comes at a cost.
Let’s celebrate the men and women who line up to do that work, those who are willing to pay the price in order to drag the rest of us into the future right along with them. Let’s remember the fallen, respect their work, and move into the future knowing just a little bit more than we did before — thanks to them and their hard work.