Monday, July 30, 2007

The Death of Space Pioneers

I have spent the weekend mourning over the explosion, deaths, and injuries that occurred at Scaled Composites last Friday.

As reported at

Scaled Composites workers Todd Ivens, 33, Eric Blackwell, 38, and Glen May, 45, were killed in the explosion, which occurred as they and other coworkers were conducting a routine cold-flow test of the oxidizer system for SpaceShipTwo.

I knew what I wanted to say in response to that incident, but it took a while for me to be able to write it – and, in the mean time, little else seemed sufficiently important.

I think that the people at Scaled Composites and elsewhere are doing something that is vital to the future of the human race. The future of the human race may well depend on our ability to build a sufficiently large infrastructure in space to keep the human race going, even if Earth should become uninhabitable.

I have had some contact with this particular company. I once (a few years ago) was given a tour of Scaled Composites. It was a tour that first required that I sign a non-disclosure agreement; a tour that lasted for hours (including lunch). As long as it lasted, it was far too short. I left feeling that I had been given the honor of seeing history being made.

These are people who deserve the title of ‘heroes’ – people who are willing to put their lives on the line to bring some goodness into the world. They are like police officers, fire fighters, and soldiers, who think that something is important enough to warrant the risk involved in taking on the job.

Clearly, these six people were aware of the fact that they were in the vicinity of something that could kill them. They were at a testing pad, built quite some distance away from any other structure or installation that could be hurt in an accident. They were there because they knew that this was the type of work that required being at such a place.

These are people who knew that death would happen. They knew that people would die, and that they could be the ones who died. Yet, their greatest fear as they talked about such things was not so much that they would die, but that their death would be such a blow to the work that was so important to them.

[Note: I know these things, because I discussed these issues with people in the industry. My contributions were covered in Chapter 17 of the 2003 publication, Making Space Happen by Bernstein Research.]

These people did not hesitate to talk about the fact that some would die. When they had this conversation, in addition to the standard worries of those who faced the possibility of death, they worried a great deal about what that death would do to the work they were doing. Near the top of their list of fears was the fear that after they died that those who survived their death would use the incident to tear down what these people risked their lives to build.

As a matter of fact, in participating in these conversations, and knowing the day will come in which people will die in this pursuit, I have given a lot of thought to what I would do when that day came. I felt it my duty to make what contribution I could to make sure that, in burying the victims of such an accident, they did not bury the dreams of those who died.

The very reason why my blog has been silent for these past two days is because I knew the time had come to do that which I had so often thought about – and I simply did not want this day to ever come.

I should also add that I cannot speak for the six people who were in that explosion. I did not know any of them personally. The only thing I can speak to are the attitudes of those who I knew when I participated in that industry.

It is impossible to calculate how much we owe to those who were willing to take the first steps into a new frontier. We know that they have not always fared well against the unknown, yet they went nonetheless. The rest of us wait, timidly, for them to signal back, “Okay, it’s safe.”

These people, the pioneers, have given us the world. Someday, they will give us other worlds – including worlds that we have designed and built ourselves, to our own specifications.

We cannot honor these people by destroying the things they lived for. What a tragic mistake that would be. We would then be like children who, knowing that our parents sacrificed so much for our benefit, sought to destroy our own lives. Such a child makes their parent’s sacrifice less than worthless.

[Note: This argument calls to mind some of the claims that the Bush Administration has made in defense of ‘staying the course’ in Iraq. I do not want to sully this post with a digression into Bush’s policies. Tomorrow, I will explain why Bush’s version of this argument fails, and fails so spectacularly. But, not today.]

The universe is as indifferent to our survival as a species as it is to the survival of any individual person. Whether we live or die as a species depends on the work we are willing to do as individuals to help secure our survival. Some of that work is dangerous. However, the dangers we face as individuals is miniscule to the dangers we face as a species if individuals do nothing.

How do we respect their work? How do we honor what them? We will show them our respect and honor what they were trying to do for us by building the future world that they dreamed about. We will honor them as humans stand among the stars and look back in greater and greater numbers. To do anything else . . . in particular, to kill what they have worked to accomplish or to strangle it in so much red tape that it has no room to move or to grow, would be to show contempt for what many people think of as being so important, so valuable, that they willingly put their lives on the line.

In closing, Scaled Composites have set up a support fund for the families of those killed and injured last week.

Please send your donation for those involved in the accident on July 26, 2007, to:

Scaled Family Support Fund c/o Scaled Composites, 1624 Flight Line, Mojave, CA. 93501

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love and miss you Todd, very much. Thank you for sharing with me......