>> Monday, May 17, 2010

There's a risk in my business if you spend too many years in safety or any critical profession (and, by critical, I mean looking over other people's work for flaws or problems). After a while, all you see with something is what's wrong with it. Where is could be safer or faster or more effective, the failings you found the hard way, the limitations, the dangers. Sometimes, it spills into your real life and you find yourself obsessing about what isn't there, what isn't working, what wasn't good enough. I have to constantly watch for it and I still fail quite frequently. I suspect I'm not easy to live with.

But I believe we're a necessary evil, as it were. Gil Stern said, "Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute." At NASA and, in fact, any organization where they strive to push the envelope and do what is unaccountably difficult, where doing the impossible is just one of the balls one has to juggle, nothing can happen without the dreamers, the ones who refuse to believe it's impossible, who stride forward undaunted no matter what the challenge.

That can be very very good. We would never have walked on the moon or driven robots on Mars without such dreamers and genius. The world was changed by the people who did these great things, who challenged the emptiness around our world in ways most people don't appreciate in the slightest.

But those accomplishments were not without price and many lost or nearly lost their lives to teach the rest of us hard lessons to carry forward to the next step. And it's times like these, when the old guard, who first conquered aspects of space-faring, are almost gone among us and all are left are those who have Shuttled to and fro to low earth orbit for the last two decades. They have accomplishments but they are incremental, tapping the opportunities in what is, space-wise, our own backyard. No new ships have been designed for man by either Russia or the US in decades.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try—perish the thought—only that we are at our most vulnerable when it comes for forgetting the lessons of the past, the times we got lucky (and the over-designing that forged that luck) and the times we didn't.

That's what my paper is all about that I'll be presenting this week at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety Conference.

That also means I may not be back here until the weekend. Have a good one.


  • Jeff King

    wow, good luck...

  • Roy

    Knock 'em dead, Steph!

  • The Mother

    There are always folks willing to risk their lives in pursuit of adventure. We as society might as well take advantage of that.

  • Boris Legradic

    Ohh, will the conference paper be published? Or will we at least get an abstract? The evil IAASS site seems to have no abstracts online :(

  • flit

    I'm sure your paper will be excellent; have fun at the conference.

    I think of you every time I hear about the oil spill - seems to me they needed a few more safety engineers to avoid this whole mess - or one good one.

  • Relax Max

    I agree there is a need for both optimists and pessimists. Or "dreamers" and "verifiers". You look for flaws. It's your job. I also look for flaws, because it seems to be my nature. I don't really consider myself a pessimist - I just want to increase the odds of success by not overlooking something or assuming something.

    I feel bad about the Obama administration not funding a return to the moon. I believe in the necessity of manned missions over robot missions. I do believe funding for ambitious (dreamer) space projects will return after Obama, so that expensive projects - perhaps to Mars instead of to General Motors and AIG - will still become a reality. If there is middle ground, then that would be me. A cautious optimist.

    I know your paper will knock them dead. Good for you.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Thank you all for the encouragement.

    I don't know that I fit in with pessimist myself. I like to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

    And, actually, I think my paper went over quite well this morning.

    Thanks everyone.

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