June Scobee Rogers: Greatest Risk in Space Exploration is To Take No Risk

June Scobee Rogers: Greatest Risk in Space Exploration is To Take No Risk

June Scobee Rogers, widow of space shuttle Challenger STS-51-L commander Dick Scobee, believes that the “greatest risk in space exploration is to take no risk.”

Rogers, the force behind the Challenger Center for Space Science Education that was created as a living tribute to the crew, spoke at the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Center last night.  Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy and the NASA Day of Remembrance 2013 that honors all the crews who lost their lives, including Challenger and the Apollo 1 crew. 

The panel discussion on “Caution and Boldness:  Balancing Risk in Spaceflight,” also featured Apollo astronaut Ken Mattingly, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA Public Outreach Alan Ladwig, and space historian Steve Dick.   Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin made a surprise guest appearance.  The webcast of the event is online (in two parts)

Rogers recounted a television interview soon after she and the other Challenger families decided to create the Challenger Center, which teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to students through hands-on exploration and discovery opportunities.  The reporter asked what the students would learn about risk.  She and Jane Smith, widow of Challenger pilot Mike Smith, had no reply and the interview ended “clumsily.”  

She decided that she would never be stumped by the question again and thought through the various types of risk and how to explain it to students.   The next time she was interviewed and asked about risk, she replied “without risk, there’s no new knowledge.  Without risk there’s no great discovery.   Without risk there is no bold adventure.  That’s what it’s about with human spaceflight.  Bold adventure helps the human spirit to soar.”   The interviewer then asked “what is the greatest risk.”  Her reply was “the greatest risk in space exploration is to take no risk.”

Alan Ladwig asked whether perceptions of risk will change with the advent of commercial human spaceflight.  There is a widespread presumption that companies will be less concerned about safety than NASA because they are more focused on business matters like profit.  Ladwig argued, however, that they will go out of business if passengers do not feel safe so the opposite is more likely.  Ken Mattingly, who was the command module pilot on Apollo 16 and commanded two space shuttle missions, asserted that risk needs to be managed, it cannot be avoided.  He told the story of talking with a Saturn V technician who was working on the very rocket that would soon take Mattingly to the Moon and who was skeptical that one could go to the Moon and return safely.   However, he told Mattingly that the mission “won’t fail because of me.”   As long as the people working on human spaceflight missions continue to feel that level of accountability, Mattingly believes risk is being well managed.

“Exploration is what great nations do” throughout history, according to Steve Dick.  However, “history is not prescriptive”  and the “lessons of history are never learned.”  He compared the great Age of Discovery in the 15th-16th centuries versus today and said that little was done to manage risk in the Age of Discovery, while today’s era of exploration is characterized by risk aversion.  The policy challenge, he said, is to find the balance between caution and boldness.  Safety will always be the second priority in any bold adventure, he said, because the first priority is simply to go — or there would be no exploration.

Buzz Aldrin, who earlier in the day participated in a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, was a surprise guest at the event and used the occasion to make the case for one-way human trips to Mars.   He reasons that the people who make the arduous journey to Mars should stay there, not return home.  “What are they going to do when they come back,” he asked.  “Are they going to retire?  We made a big investment in getting them there and they know what it’s like to be there.  I think their best service to themselves and the nation and the world is to stay there and build up the sustainability that is really needed.”  He said that he uses the word “permanence” as the objective, not “one-way trip” adding that “the Pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for the return trip.”

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