Flavin's Corner
12-10-99

Fire and Ice

     It was another difficult week...  The tragic loss of six firemen in Worcester,
Massachusetts, last Friday night, has the entire Boston-metropolitan area in a
funk.  And then there's the sadness behind Dec. 7th and Japan's 1941 attack on
Pearl Harbor, as well as Dec. 8th and the 1980 assassination of John Lennon.
There's still no signal from the Mars Polar Lander and it looks like NASA has
wasted another $165 million.  The ancient Norse believed the Earth exists
between areas of fire and ice, and that one day the Earth will be consumed by
fire.  Today such beliefs are regarded as antiquated, pagan mythology, but I can't
help thinking maybe NASA should spend their next mission-budget on hiring
and training new firemen, rather than launching cash into space.  We need
firemen a lot more than a better understanding of water and ice on Mars.

     According to stories from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the first
firefighters to respond at the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage warehouse
were informed by the police that a witness had told them homeless people lived
in the building and it wasn't uncommon for the squatters to start fires in an
attempt to keep warm.  Three teams of two firefighters each entered the building
in search of homeless people overcome by smoke.  After looking in vain for
anyone in need of help, one team experienced problems and radioed "Mayday!
Mayday!"  The fire had grown to three alarms, by that time, and other teams of
firefighters began to methodically search the various floors of the warehouse for
the missing two firefighters.  Suddenly, the old, polyurethane foam insulation
behind the crumbling walls caught fire, and the thin, gray smoke from the
burning wood quickly turned oily, thick, and black.  Everyone was told to
immediately get out, but it was soon discovered that two more teams were
missing.  Something went wrong and six firemen lost their lives.

     A few days ago a homeless couple was arrested and charged with six counts
of involuntary manslaughter.  They are alleged to have lived in the abandoned
warehouse, accidentally knocked over a candle during a fight, fled the building,
returned for an attempt to rescue a dog and cat, and then fled again.  At no time
did they bother to report the fire; an inaction which many judge as contributing
to the deaths of the firefighters.  The couple is being held on a million dollars
bail each.

     As the search continues for the bodies of four of the firefighters, NASA
engineers are struggling to determine what went wrong with the Mars Polar
Lander (MPL).  The failure of the MPL comes shortly after the Sept. 23, 1999
disaster of the Mars Climate Observer, which burned up in the Martian
atmosphere because one of the many programming teams involved with the craft
used American units of measurement (inches, feet, miles, etc.) instead of the
metric system (centimeters, meters, kilometers, etc.).  The loss of the MPL joins
an impressive list of mistakes and blunders involving our exploration of Mars,
but impressive as they may be, they're still errors and they contribute more to
our understanding of the inefficiency of those in charge of various space
programs than to science.  Saying "we learn from our mistakes" may help a
high-school football team regain confidence after a series of embarrassing
defeats, but this won't fly with NASA.  The work is too important (our better
understanding of Mars) to accept this continuing level of incompetence.  Okay,
I'm not suggesting hara-kiri, banishment to the Arctic or Cleveland, but ...I'd like
to see some of those responsible for these recent failures in a different line of
work.

     Our exploration of space is not some expensive hobby for geeks, a covert
means for the Pentagon to acquire new technology, or the product of a secret
Hollywood studio, but rather the progressive, determined commitment of
science to ...understand the universe.  We need that knowledge...  The MPL was
designed to assist in determining the amount of water still present on Mars, or at
least provide some clues as what happened to all the water (providing, of
course, that the interpretation of the visual evidence of "dried up oceans" are
correct).  The polar region was chosen as the likeliest location to reveal the
arcane fate of Mars' water and the need for this information doesn't change
because the MPL mission failed.  I'm concerned that this may lead to more
guesswork by NASA in future missions and, after the recent losses, I'm worried
that the cost-cutting and mistakes will continue.  I hope I'm wrong...

     At extremes we have love and hate (though I'm constantly reminded that
"indifference" would be a better antonym for love), hot and cold, and fire and
ice.  The ancient Norse regions of Muspelheim (fire) and Niflheim (ice) were
imagined to be primordial, and Midgard (Earth) was in the middle.  It's a classic
theme, freshly re-staged with every new day's performance, and we endure
mediocrity surrounded by much more.  The Worcester fireman are rightly
regarded as heroes for doing their jobs and NASA engineers and supervisors are
bearing the brunt of frustration over the loss of knowledge.  We endure much,
and it's a safe bet that ...that's how it's supposed to be.

     My heart goes out to the families of the lost firefighters.  I also feel concern
for the homeless couple and I hope they get more help than they do punishment.
I suppose, dispensing with disappointment, that the same goes for NASA and
they get more assistance than punishment or restriction.  We've suffered some
losses, last night Worcester experienced another fire, NASA still has plenty of
missions planned, and we must continue...  A single photograph may capture a
profound moment, but multiplicative time continues regardless of its occasional
profundity and the recording thereof.  No matter how difficult the week, the
next awaits with challenge, promise, and a job to do...

middling,
Rick

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