Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Danger of Going Up

Every year people climb up Mount Everest.  Generally the number keeps growing.  Not everybody makes it up.  Some people turn back.  Other people die on the mountain.  Generally around 1 in 100 of the people who attempt to climb it.  K2 is another mountain nearby.  For a little bit people thought it might be taller than Everest.  It isn't taller, but it is deadlier and about 1 in 10 of the people who try to climb it die.

Why do people climb dangerous mountains?  To test themselves.  For the sense of achievement.  And despite the danger nobody is seriously proposing that we stop people from attempting these summits.  If they want to risk their lives they can.  They know the risks.  We should stop people who don't know what they're doing but you'll never even get to base camp without serious dedication and preparation.

If we allow mountain climbers to face severe dangers for the sake of achieving something few others have why don't we allow this with astronauts?  We did once, it was almost amazing that none of the Mercury 7 were killed in accidents.  Gus Grissom nearly was and the Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during spaceflight tests.  When we were locking in competition with the Soviets these risks seemed bearable but they don't any more.

Certainly astronauts are as aware of the dangers present as any mountaineer contemplating K2.  NASA requires them to toe the safety first line to remain in the program but it's clear to everyone watching that if riskier missions were offered there would be no shortage of volunteers.

Perhaps the difference is that astronauts are doing something for us.  They're exploring the cosmos on our behalf in a way that people looking to climb some mountain aren't.  And that instills in us a sense of obligation to shield them from risk even if they would bear that risk willingly.

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