The Palm Beach Post January 28, 2001 Sunday
WANT TO STAY SAFE? KEEP OUT OF SPACEEliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The seven who died aboard the Challenger on this day 15 years ago weren't the first American astronauts to perish in the line of duty, but their shuttle's explosion on live television shook a nation complacent in its space supremacy.
It was wake-up call to the dangers of space travel - a tragedy some experts say is as relevant today as ever.
NASA says it has employed 312 active astronauts and trainees during the half-century of the space program.
The 17 deaths calculate to 5,449 deaths per 100,000 astronauts - far above the 162.5 deaths per 100,000 fishermen, the most dangerous profession listed by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Though the figure's statistical value could be debated because of the small sampling, no one disputes that the vacuum of space and the miles of thin air between it and Earth constitute just about the most dangerous workplace possible.
"With all this ballyhoo of space tourism and moving into space, it's like it's taking a trip to West Palm from New York," said State University of New York professor Karl Grossman, author of The Wrong Stuff and producer of two video documentaries strongly critical of NASA's safety record.
Grossman also is concerned about the dangers to civilians from accidents involving spacecraft carrying plutonium or nuclear reactors.
"I'm worried about people all over the world being impacted by this public Pollyanna attitude by NASA toward the dangers of space travel," Grossman said.
Even in orbit, astronauts face a man-made minefield. NASA counts more than 150,000 orbiting objects of at least 1 centimeter in size; 2,720 are operating or abandoned spacecraft or parts of them, ranging in size from 110 pounds to Russia's 154-ton Mir space station, set to fall to earth in March.
It may be no coincidence that the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts died not in the deadly reaches of space but either sitting on the pad or during launch or reentry, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization supported by private foundations.
GlobalSecurity deals with defense and space issues. Pike has argued that many space missions could be handled by unmanned spacecraft without endangering people.
"It's not so much that being in space is dangerous as coming and going is," Pike said from Virginia.
But, he added, "Everything we've done thus far, if you got into trouble you had at least the possibility of bailing out in somewhere between a few minutes and a few days.
"The shuttle is never more than a half hour from landing. There's normally very little margin for error in spaceflight generally, and dramatically less margin of error in deep-spaceflight."
Pike notes that recently two Mars probes in a row vanished; had they been manned, he said, "You'd have a lot of dead people."
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Copyright 2001 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.