Trying to make things better


The Challenger crew: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik (source: NASA)

Thirty years ago today, with millions watching on live TV, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. All seven crew members died.

Something else died too, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s remember those seven who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and sought to advance humankind’s understanding of space and technology.

Let’s remember also the seven astronauts who died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the three who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967. (In an eerie coincidence, the anniversaries of all three events fall within five days of each other.)

I grew up with the space program in the 1960s. I have an early memory of Alan Shepard becoming the first American to travel into space. (My mother, seated next to me at the TV, said “Pray for him.”) I had chills listening to the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. (I still get chills at the memory.) When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon a few months later, it felt like the future was full of possibility.


The New York World’s Fair

In the ’60s the world was a mess, just as it is today. But the mood of the time was that science and technology could solve many of our problems. That they could — no, make that would — make things better for everyone. A succession of World’s Fairs, like the one in New York in 1964-65, gave us a glimpse into a future that looked pretty wonderful.

It was an exciting dream.

But even as Armstrong took that first walk on the moon, the dream was starting to fray. Just a few weeks earlier the Cuyahoga River had famously caught fire, forcing us to realize that technology, rather than making our lives better, might be fouling the environment.

The last Apollo flight splashed down in 1972, and no one has walked on the moon since. The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown changed many people’s views about the virtues of nuclear power (including mine).

But for me that unquestioning faith in science and technology ended, finally, on the day Challenger exploded. Since then I think that we as a culture have understood that science and technology are neither good nor bad. Science is value neutral — seeking to understand the physical world as it is. Technology is simply a tool we can use to bring about good or bad, as we choose.

So let’s remember those who died. Through science and technology, they were trying to make things better.

3 thoughts on “Trying to make things better

  1. Ray

    Larry, this is a poignant reminder, and as someone of the same generation, your writings touch off lots of memories.

    I did want to respond to the idea that science and technology are value neutral. I think that history, especially recent history, has proven otherwise. The industrial revolution, for example, totally changed social and economic relationships. Ditto for Internet. What I think is becoming more and more evident is that we do not create “tools,” anymore, we create work environments, living environments, contexts for life. And they are far from socially neutral.

    If, one day (and I fervently hope that day never comes) we actually manage to understand in detail the workings of the human brain, will that be a blessing for humanity? I rather think not. Sure, we’ll be able to better deal with certain mental problems and disorders, but will that compensate for the potential of direct control, via electro-chemical, or whatever means, that people in power can exercise over us – often in the name of “making things better?”

    It pleases me enormously that scientists, today, often ask themselves, even if something is possible, should it be realized? You might call this self-censorship, and in some cases it might amount to that. But I prefer that to a technologically induced Brave New World where ethics are cast aside by the new promotors of a new eugenics, or something like that, or “racial purity,” or whatever.

    While I am cautious about those who compare this era to the 1930’s, the racial backlashes that we are seeing in most western countries today certainly have their parallels, and for similar reasons (economic crisis that does not “fix” itself, sense that democracy no longer functions, that politicians are deaf to the needs of people and only care about retaining power, etc.).

    The technocratic position is that there will be a technological solution to all this – climate change, economic change, whatever. I think as humanists who work closely with technology and science, we know this is not true, while we also know that science and technology MUST be PART of the solution. We are caught in a conundrum between the promise of our technological prowess, and the disappointment we have seen in how it has been applied. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a simple equation of “good application” vs. “bad application.” Some technologies FAVOUR bad application, and we must be careful, and vigilant, in our development of them, just as we must be vigilant about human behaviour, no matter how beneficial a technology may be.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Ray. That’s an excellent summary of the conundrum we face. I can’t add anything to what you’ve said so well — except that it will take good people, much more than good technologies, to solve humankind’s problems.

  2. Pingback: Our creative future | Leading Technical Communication

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