DEATH AND RECOVERY….The space shuttle is an enormously complex and ? in many ways ? fragile vehicle. And over the years there have been a number of people who have claimed not only that the entire shuttle concept was flawed from the start, but that since then it’s been underfunded, mismanaged, and oversold.

Perhaps. But the U.S. conducted 28 manned space missions as part of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and suffered one catastrophic failure in flight (Apollo 13) and one more on the ground (Apollo 1). The space shuttle has flown 113 times so far and has had two catastrophic failures. Unmanned launches have also had their share of failures.

The complexity of space vehicles makes them inherently dangerous, and the evidence suggests that, given the state of the art in engineering, we have to accept the likelihood of one failure every 50 flights or so. But as with the Challenger disaster, while there will no doubt be a sustained effort to find not just the cause of this latest accident, but someone to blame for it, the real story is probably simpler: the shuttle is built and run by human beings, and human beings are not perfect.

We learn from our mistakes, but we should never allow fear of failure to keep us from pushing the boundaries of what we can accomplish. Death ? and recovery from death ? are a fundamental part of the human condition, a lesson that we are re-learning rather more often than we’d like in the first few years of the 21st century.