I usually write about music, movies, and horror fiction for this blog, but today I want to do something different. Here's an observation following yet another mass shooting, this one yesterday at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, one issue that
got too little attention was prevention. The shuttle’s
reinforced-carbon-carbon (RCC) tiles, which provided excellent heat
protection but little structural stability, had been breached by a piece
of spray-on foam insulation (SOFI – the orange stuff on the outside of
the massive external fuel tank). Some engineers and analysts suspected
this breach because they had grainy video footage of an object striking
an RCC-clad area during the launch, but they had no proof that any
Why didn’t they have any proof? First, the
aforementioned video's angle did not allow for a view of the RCC tiles.
Second, Columbia was one of the few shuttles in the fleet at that time
with no robotic camera arm, meaning the crew and mission control had no
autonomous way to view the shuttle’s wing and inspect it for damage.
(Post-Columbia, of course, such arms became mandatory.) Third, the
engineers and analysts involved had run a staggering amount of analysis
on strike probability and, as a result, were concerned enough that they
made two requests in an attempt to ascertain any wing or belly damage:
1. They asked the Department of Defense for satellite imagery of
Columbia in orbit. This request, however, did not follow the proper NASA
chain of command and was canceled (without follow-up) by a manager.
2. They emailed a specific NASA person requesting that one of the
Columbia crew perform a spacewalk so they could inspect for damage up
close. Unfortunately, that person was on vacation and did not see the
request until s/he returned from vacation a few days after Columbia’s
disastrous attempted reentry.
One logical question, then, that
arose during the post-disaster investigation was, “If we had known the
extent of the damage before reentry, could we have done anything to save
the crew?” Experts’ responses then and now differ on this point. While
bailing out or ejecting was impossible – crews could only bail out below
30,000 feet and 220 mph; Columbia, by comparison, broke up at 200,000
feet and 12,738 mph – some say there were at least two potential
1. Space shuttle Atlantis was already preparing for the
next mission, and NASA could have rushed this preparation and
essentially sent Atlantis on a rescue operation.
2. NASA could
have had some of the Columbia crew do a spacewalk to “patch” the hole in
the wing using quite literally anything at their disposal (tools, bags
of ice, pieces of interior components, etc.) to put some mass in the
hole and deflect the superheated plasma produced during the thermal
violence of reentry.
Even proponents of these options conceded
their odds of success were low to middling. No one, for instance, would
have been able to guarantee that Atlantis would be ready in time, but,
even if they could, because foam strikes had been a documented problem
since the dawn of the shuttle program, using another shuttle for rescue
meant the chance, however remote, of grievously damaging a second
shuttle and imperiling the lives of 14 astronauts instead of 7.
Opponents, meanwhile, had a predictably simpler response: “There are no
viable options. It can’t be saved.” Some of those opponents are people I
respect professionally, and I’m inclined to believe their prognosis,
dire as it was.
But that dissenting stance, no matter how rooted
in scientific limitations, is not only pessimistic but also wholly
divorced from reality. Does anyone with a developed brain stem truly
believe that NASA and the entire United States, had they possessed
photographic evidence of a hole in Columbia’s wing that would have led
to the shuttle’s disintegration and 7 human deaths on atmospheric
reentry, would have sat on their hands and said, “Well, it’s a tragedy,
but we have no good options. We’ll just have to let them die”? Of course
not. As the chair of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB),
Retired Navy Admiral Hal Gehman, said simply when discussing this very
issue, “No. We would have done SOMETHING.”
If we knew a disaster was imminent, even with no good options, we would have done SOMETHING.
The epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings in this country is a
similar situation. It doesn’t matter that people, not guns, are said to
kill people (mental illness IS an enormous driver in this issue, but we
don't do anything about that either). It doesn’t matter that the 2nd
Amendment’s wording is unclear enough to allow for distortion and the
loophole of individual-gun ownership. It doesn’t matter that "guns are
just a part of American culture." It doesn’t matter that gun
manufacturing and ownership are a Pandora’s Box that would be hell to
try and close. It doesn’t matter that the gun lobby is massively wealthy
and massively influential and, therefore, massively corrupting to a
representative democracy. It doesn’t matter that owning a Glock or an
AR-15 makes you sleep better at night because you’re worried about
(nonwhite) criminals and/or the prospect of a tyrannical government. It
doesn’t matter that your daddy/momma/pop-pop/meemaw/crazy
uncle/3rd-cousin-twice-removed always loved guns and passed that love on
to you. It doesn’t matter that you’re embarrassingly awful at logic and
cannot/refuse to see that guns and automobiles (or other objects) do
not in any way make a valid comparison. It doesn’t matter that you say
you’ll hand over your guns when they’re pried from your cold, dead
hands. None of that matters.
The only thing that matters is
people are dying, whole lives and families ruined forever, because
unstable people obtain and use guns very, very easily while we, en
masse, invariably say, “Well, it’s a tragedy, but we have no good
options. We’ll just have to let them die.”
It doesn't matter if
we seem to have few good options. We have to do something. Nothing else
matters but actually fucking doing something.