June 23 - 29, 2011
Mission’s end The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 15 “Roaring into space on two mighty blowtorches and a magnificent column of steam, the space shuttle Columbia was given a go-ahead Sunday to complete the 54 1/2-hour mission that is expected to open a new space frontier. The liftoff — the world’s most spectacular space launch — awed veteran space watchers at the Kennedy Space Center here.” — Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1981. Thirty years ago, space shuttle Columbia arced into the sky at Cape Canaveral, carrying aloft America’s hopes for a thrilling sequel to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Challenger. Discovery. Endeavour. Atlantis. Columbia. Those shuttle names conjured the spirit of exploration and the risks that came with exploring uncharted — and unforgiving — territory. NASA promised the shuttle would be like no other spacecraft ever launched. And it was. It launched like a rocket, circled the globe and swooped to Earth like a jetliner — a symbol of American technical prowess. From zero to 17,500 mph in just over eight minutes. But other NASA promises didn’t pan out: The shuttle didn’t pay for itself by reaping millions of dollars from private companies eager to score scientific bonanzas in zero gravity. And that ambitious shuttle schedule envisioned by NASA, launching a mission just about every week? That proved to be laughably optimistic. If all goes as planned, Atlantis streaks into space on July 8, the 135th and final shuttle mission. What a long, strange trip it’s been. Sure, there were thrills along the way. Those amazing spacewalks. The triumph of sending into space the first American woman, Sally Ride, and the first African-American, Guion Bluford, little more than a month apart in the summer of 1983. The launch of the dazzling Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel the mystery of the Big Bang. But the shuttle more often fizzled in the Igniting-America’s-Imagination department. It was always in the shop for repairs. You never knew when it would launch or land because the weather had to be just right. The craft’s technology showed its age: Flight deck computers often used outdated chips, “the sort of pre-Pentium electronics no self-respecting teenager would dream of using for a video game,” one critic wrote. And where, exactly, did it go? Into low Earth orbit, a glorified 18-wheeler in space, hauling astronauts, spare parts and scientific equipment to the international space station. Astronauts also fixed balky toilets. And on one shuttle flight, Coke and Pepsi convinced NASA to do an experiment to determine if carbonated beverages could be dispensed in weightlessness. They could. ■■■ What Americans will remember most are the disasters. Challenger, 73 seconds into its January 1986 voyage, exploding.
Tendrils of smoke and a plume of debris against an ice-blue sky. The words of a stunned Mission Control public information officer: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Seven crew members died, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. A national commission pinpointed many problems that were fixed. But one wasn’t: A NASA culture that often valued an aggressive launch schedule over safety. Then Columbia, 16 minutes to landing, in February 2003. Debris landed in a wide swath from Texas to Louisiana. A different culprit: A briefcase-sized chunk of foam insulation that broke loose during launch and damaged a few of the 24,000-plus bricklike heat-protection tiles on the shuttle’s belly. Engineers had identified — and fretted over — that Achilles heel since the first launch. On the day after the Columbia accident, the Chicago Tribune said it “should teach children and adults alike more than the calibrations of danger and loss that can reduce life to an exercise in caution. … It is crucial, too, to cherish the joy of exploration that propelled these seven Columbia astronauts aloft — and that boldly survives them in the clear blue sky.” So … what now for the American space program? There’s still plenty of adventure, even without manned flights. NASA will send a probe hurtling into Jupiter’s orbit to learn more about the planet’s origins. Another Mars rover will assess whether Mars is — or ever was — able to support microbial life, a step in determining the planet’s habitability. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a giant supercooled magnet, will probe for signs of mysterious “dark matter” that physicists believe pervades the universe. It could solve a cosmic mystery about the stuff of the universe, or, as one report suggested, it could become “a $1.5 billion hood ornament on the international space station.” And what of all those astronauts-inwaiting, those intrepid souls who signed up to get slung into space on a glider bolted to a rocket? What happens to those with the right stuff … at the wrong time? They’ll have to be very patient. Or find another line of work. We don’t know when a generation of astronauts will push into deep space, to Mars or beyond. But we do know it will happen. It will happen because peeling back barriers, despite the dangers, or maybe because of them … is tangled deep in human DNA. “A spacecraft is a metaphor of national inspiration,” author Gregg Easterbrook wrote in Time magazine in 2003: “Majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of Earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there — a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind.” Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will join Columbia and Challenger at rest. The shuttle ends. Not the journey.
Drew Sheneman | Tribune Media Services
Uncertain cellphone peril? Get used to it The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on June 6. “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” That bit of wisdom is attributed to Sir William Osler, the first professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and the doctor often referred to as the father of modern medicine. His insight on the subject of health risk can illuminate today’s cellphone safety debate. People are having a hard time interpreting the finding last week by a World Health Organization panel that cellphones are “possibly carcinogenic.” Some talk of giving up the phones — or at least going to speakerphone-only. Others chided the WHO panel for not being more specific about the risk. Still others were surprised to learn that the finding was not the result of new information but a conclusion reached after reviewing numerous existing studies. So have a cup of coffee — which, by the way, is on the same list of possible carcinogens — and accept this for what it is: The sharing of the best health information we have from a body of knowledge that’s constantly growing. Scientists themselves aren’t sure of the risk. So they’re doing what the best of them do under the circumstances: calling attention to what they do know, and telling cellphone users to use their own judgment from the available science — most of which indicates that if there is a risk, it’s relatively small. Meanwhile, scientists continue to review data, consider new hypotheses and test them as rigorously as possible. We’re lucky that they do. It’s frustrating to get inconclusive information, but waiting until danger
or safety is proven absolutely would be far worse. Imagine how you’d feel if word came out of the blue that after years of study, cellphones were proven to be deadly. You’d be furious that you hadn’t gotten a hint of a warning earlier. Many people stopped smoking, or tried to, long before the danger was proved beyond a doubt. We’ve seen this sort of nuance from researchers before, and we’ve seen their conclusions change over time. The industrial chemical bisphonel A is an example. Once unconvinced of any danger from BPA, the Food and Drug Administration continued to evaluate data and now wants the plastics industry to stop using the material in baby bottles and infant feeding cups. The World Health Organization scientists couldn’t say how large or small a risk cellphone radiation may pose. So they classified it in Group 2B out of five possible categories of risk. Group 1 is the most toxic substances, with proven causes of cancer such as smoking and asbestos high on the list. Group 2A is for probable carcinogens such as creosotes, diesel exhaust and use of sun beds. Group 2B contains the “possibly carcinogenic” threats, placing cellphones in the company of more than 220 chemicals, pesticides and other potential dangers, including that cup of coffee. Group 3 and Group 4 items are considered to be less risky, but new information is being gathered constantly. The renowned Sir William Osler believed that thoroughness is the most difficult virtue to acquire in the medical field — “but it is the pearl of great price, worth all the worry and trouble of the search.” Text that to all your cellphone friends.
Each week the Chronicle hits the streets to find out what’s on your mind. This week, Amy KD Tobik asked …
“How would you describe the ideal summer day?” Asked at St. Stephen Catholic Church summer camp in Winter Springs.
“Hanging out with friends and no school.” — Croix Winter Park
“Sleeping in, hanging with friends and staying up late.” — Katie Winter Springs
“Waking up in the afternoon and spending the rest of the day at the beach.” — Dayna Oviedo
“A book, a lounge chair and kids splashing in the pool.” — Sherrie Winter Springs
If you want to have the Question of the Week asked at your business or event, email us at editor@SeminoleChronicle.com.
“Go to Bagel King for breakfast, swim in my pool, read a few magazines, take a nap and then catch up on The Young & the Restless.” — Michele Winter Park