Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Only the Elite Go to Space

Currently there are over a hundred-thousand applicants vying for four one-way tickets to Mars.  The vetting process for getting to this point will be arduous, and only a select few will seriously be considered.  This is for a privately funded, and possible (but far from certain) mission to Mars.  NASA is hoping to go there, but won’t be opening the mission to just anyone.  There are very good reasons for this.
Space travel is extremely hazardous, and not for the faint of heart.  It is extraordinarily difficult to launch a rocket into orbit, let alone send it to another planet.  Certainly the fundamentals are rudimentary (which is why they are called fundamentals), but the devil is in the details.  Successfully sending a manned spacecraft into orbit, and returning it safely is extremely difficult.  NASA makes it look easy, and almost routine, but I can assure you that is an illusion.
You only have to look at NASA’s failures to see how difficult it is to succeed, and NASA’s history is littered with failure.  There have been three catastrophic events that cost lives.
Apollo 1(AS-204)

SS Challenger (STS-51)

SS Columbia (STS-107)

That’s just NASA.  Every other nation that has put astronauts and spacecraft orbit has suffered training accidents and loss of men and equipment.  There is a reason why “Rocket Scientist” is a synonym for an extremely intelligent person.  It takes a lot of math, science, and engineering to perfect a vehicle for launch, and even then, failure is possible.  Even the slightest defect can have serious repercussions.
There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, brightest, and healthiest people into space.  I know there are some exceptions to that statement (John Glen flew on STS-95 when he was 77), but there are always exceptions.  However, for a deep space mission there can be no exceptions.
When an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, the three men onboard were NOT ordinary men.  Lovell, Haise, and Swigert were ALL test pilots.  Fred Haise graduated with honors in Aerospace Engineering. John Swigert had a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MS in Aerospace Engineering, and an MBA.  James Lovell had graduated from the Naval Academy.  These men were intelligent, resourceful, and highly trained.  They were supported by the smartest and most talented ground crew that the United States could muster.  None of the people involved accepted failure as an option (probably a reason why it’s a brilliantly delivered line in the movie).

Serious space exploration is not for people who dream of being Captain Kirk.  It’s for people who ARE Lovell, Haise, Swigert, Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin, and the others that have come and gone since.  You don’t need someone who is simply better than average, you require someone exceptional.  A successful pioneering astronaut requires ingenuity, perseverance, intelligence, competence, and an overwhelming desire to survive against all odds.  These qualities are NOT possessed by ordinary.  The average person is satisfied with mediocrity, predictability, freezes when critical situations arise, and fail to act.  This type of person is unacceptable in deep space.
As I’ve pointed out, it is extremely expensive to send people to space.  People are worth more than their weight in gold when in space.  You can only afford to send the most experienced, the most dedicated, the most committed, the most stable, the most resourceful, the best trained, and the most intelligent on missions to other planets.  Anything less is a waste of money.
A successful astronaut is the kind of person that has a family, a job they are dedicated to, a yearning to learn, and a desire to return home.  The kind of person attracted to a one-way trip does not have the desire to return to a family, doesn’t have the skills or knowledge needed, and doesn’t have the drive to survive at all costs.  That person has already given up on the earth, and everything associated with it.  They have a desire to leave everything behind in the hopes of adventure.  It is shortsighted, vain, and ultimately doomed to failure. 
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I am.  The past is the best predictor of the future.  If we have learned anything from our past successes and failures is that eventually something will go wrong, and when things go wrong you need the best people working on a solution.  It isn’t a matter of if, but when something will go wrong.  If a mission is to have any chance of success, it must have the best tools available.  The best tool on a manned mission is the crew.  That is why only the elite are eligible, and the rest of us must live vicariously through them.

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