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Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

Webb Cove, Stonington, ME, 2007.
Webb Cove, Stonington, ME, 2007.

You have to think that at some point in the past man stood on the shore and looked out across the water. Behind him was the land he knew, in front of him the water, the horizon, and the sky. Not having the ability to go to the sky, nor having the ability to travel under the water beyond one breath, he thought, I need to go across there. I need to visit the land off in the distance. I need to discover the land I cannot see. Then, having done that, having ventured across oceans and returned, the next realms were above and below.

To go to outer space, to work one mile down beneath the surface of the water, both are inhospitable environments which test the limits of our technology. Complicate each with additional risk factors, going to space with a reusable rocket like the Space Shuttle, or not only venturing one mile down but actually working there via robots and drilling for oil, and you have situations which demand great respect for planning and fail-safe backups.

The New York Times had an article recently exploring the parallels between the current Gulf situation and Melville’s Moby Dick. What has struck me though is how the oil spill in the Gulf reminds me of the two Space Shuttle disasters. Obviously, the goals in each are wildly different, science and exploration versus profit. But in each case, it was technology which brought us to the forefront of what was possible and it was human planning and decisions which determined whether it could be done safely and smartly.

The Challenger and Columbia Shuttle missions both revealed instances where corners were cut when better backup systems could have been incorporated. For Challenger, ejector seats and pressurized suits were foregone even though they had been included in test flights. For Columbia, the mission brought front and center the issues of designing a re-usable spacecraft without including a method of checking the integrity of the ship before re-entry and of not providing a way to repair simple exterior issues while in flight.

Similarly, in the Gulf of Mexico BP cut corners in its quest to turn a profit quickly and the government was lax its oversight. One would think that to drill for oil without the utmost in safeguards would be a deal breaker. While a business person might argue that the cost of that is too high, it inhibits exploration and production, what we are seeing is that the cost of not doing that is even greater.

The leading edge of technology may make things possible but it’s the human element which will always be the mitigating factor.