“Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out?”
—–Space Shuttle Columbia mission operations chief Jon Harpold in 2003, talking about the Shuttle crew then in flight, as quoted by former NASA flight director Wayne Hale on his blog this week. Harpold was musing on a hypothetical situation (he thought) where NASA had determined that the Shuttle couldn’t safely return to Earth.
Days before Columbia disintegrated on re-entry due to a damaged heat shield, NASA officials met to determine whether Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff. They decided, wrongly, as it turned out, that the Shuttle was safe. In the course of the meeting, Jon Harpold raised the hypothetical dilemma of a doomed Shuttle and an unaware crew.
Hale tells the story to make the point that NASA’s culture at the time was organizationally and ethically flawed. I agree.
Harpold’s position is kind but monstrous. It presumes to withhold the truth from those most effected by it, on the theory that it is better to die suddenly and unexpectedly than to have the opportunity to fight and strive to the end to solve what might be an impossible problem. Nobody should feel that he has the right to make that decision, to give up on life itself, for another who still has the capacity to think and act. This is disrespect for the values of personal liberty and autonomy, both much in the public mind today.
We each must have the right to make our own decisions about our fates, and must always have the information we need to make those decisions as wisely as we can. Those who fear the truth have insufficient reverence for it. Even the worst information may contain the seeds of victory.
I’m not going gentle into that good night, and damn anyone who tries to trick me into doing so out of misplaced kindness.
Facts: Kansas City Star
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