Healing Our World

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

The Blindness of Science – Part 1

It was the wind that gave them life.
It is the wind that comes out of our mouths now
that gives us life.
When this cease to blow we die.
In the skin at the tips of our fingers
we see the trail of the wind,
it shows us the wind blew
when our ancestors were created.

-- Navajo Chant

There is an appointed time for everything.
And there is a time for every event under heaven -
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.

-- Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2

The Space Shuttle Columbia explosion and the deaths of its astronaut crew on February 1 have ceased to be front page news, replaced instead by the pending war with Iraq. But a close examination of the tragedy should still be a top priority, since the reasons behind it are tied to the path we seem to be on towards the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems.


The seven astronauts who died in the explosion of the space shuttle - Colonel Rick Husband; Lt. Colonel Michael Anderson; Commander Laurel Clark; Captain David Brown; Commander William McCool; Dr. Kalpana Chawla; and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force. (Photo courtesy NASA)
As I heard the press briefings by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in the days following the horrific destruction of the Columbia and the loss of all seven astronauts, I got angrier and angrier.

I spent nearly 20 years working in the U.S. space program, mostly on robotic space explorers and I left that field to devote my life to the Earth primarily because the practice of science and engineering had become so separated from human experience that it was wasting money, risking lives, and threatening the other worlds in our Solar System as well as our own planet.

The shuttle broke up 39 miles over Texas on February 1 and fell to Earth just as it was experiencing maximum re-entry heat of 3,000 degrees and speeds of 12,500 miles per hour, or 18 times the speed of sound. All seven astronauts aboard perished.

Hearing the NASA managers talk about how they assembled a team of experts to determine if the impact on the left wing of the shuttle by a piece of insulation that came off of the external fuel tank at lift-off was a risk brings back the traumatic emotions I felt after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

I remember seeing photos of the gantry below the Challenger on that frigid cold day in January. It was so cold that foot long, two inch thick icicles hung from equipment and pools of antifreeze were frozen solid. Yet the OK to launch was given, in spite of concerns raised by the rank and file engineers.

Then, many months later, physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, reminded the world that we are often blinded by our fabulous technology and our love affair with objectivity. He took a simple rubber washer, meant to simulate the O-ring separators in the space shuttle solid rocket boosters, and dropped it into a glass of ice water. Then he took it out and snapped it in two, demonstrating with a ridiculously simple experiment that sometimes using your senses and intuition beats out all scientific measurement and analysis.


Ice on the gantry below the Challenger (Photo courtesy NASA)
The Commission found that the cold had caused the O-ring seals to become brittle and rocket fuel ignited, creating a blow torch that exploded the main fuel tank.

Upon liftoff on January 16, 2003, the Columbia’s heat shielding tiles on the underside of the left wing were struck by a significant piece of debris. The space agency keeps calling it “foam,” but this is very misleading to the public. The insulating material sprays on as foam, but hardens to cement like consistency. It may have been as large as seven inches by 32 inches.

Columbia broke up just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA said temperature data showed that the left side - the same side hit by the debris - heated up considerably before the shuttle disintegrated.

So here’s the problem: whether or not the impact of this cement like debris on the thin layer of critical tiles turns out to be the cause of the disaster or not doesn’t really matter. The issue is that the flight controllers should have aborted the mission immediately after the impact and implemented one of a number of scenarios that would have had the shuttle return to Cape Canaveral or land at a prearranged spot in some other part of the world.

Shuttle astronauts and controllers prepare for this contingency and have even made arrangements with the governments of other countries to land if necessary.

Instead, they assembled a team of analysts who, in a half page memo, reported that the risk was acceptable. These analysts had never done such a task before. The engineers with 25 years experience with shuttle missions weren’t asked to help, since the bulk of shuttle operations had been transferred to a private contractor.

As a result of that analysis, and since the space agency concluded that they couldn’t do anything about it anyway, the decision was made not to use ground based telescopes or cameras from the space station to view the underside of the wing.

And now seven people are dead.

We are constantly told that such cutting edge endeavors involve considerable risk. I have no problem with legitimate risks, but when the risk is generated by political schemes, poorly funded programs, managers who have been promoted in spite of mediocre performance in their careers, and scientists who are trained to remove human experience from the analysis, then accepting that kind of risk is far from heroic.

NASA engineers seem incredulous that their analysis could have been in error. And that is the problem. Believing that a scientific analysis can take the place of direct human experience, intuition, and reason is a deep and pervasive problem that may be at the heart of all our environmental and social problems as well. The importance of this event is that it serves to illustrate the extreme disconnect that has developed between science and the human experience.

There has been considerable criticism among some environmental, humane, and peace advocates about all the attention that was paid to the loss of only seven individuals. While the media was consumed with details of the Columbia disaster, the slaughter of 350,000 harp seals began with babies being brutally beaten and skinned alive on the ice flows of Canada. This is from the 275,000 quota allowed last year. Each year, 220,000 people die from the effects of pesticide poisoning. And the Bush administration is putting the finishing touches on their “Shock and Awe” plan to devastate Baghdad with an unprecedented bombing with 3,000 bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours that could kill a half million innocent people.


Future space shuttle concepts from left to right: X-33, VentureStar, current space shuttle (Photo courtesy NASA)
But it is vitally important to focus on the Columbia because it illustrates dramatically and graphically what may be the prime reason for all the terrifying issues described above. Politicians, scientists, economists, industry leaders and business owners operate in a system that has devalued the importance of the human experience, emotions, and senses.

As I said a few weeks ago when discussing the historical basis for the United States’ extreme focus on the rights of the individual, Fritjof Capra speculated in his book “The Turning Point,” that between the years 1500 and 1700, there was a dramatic shift in the way people perceived their place in the world. Prior to that time, the purpose and nature of science was very different. There was very little desire to predict and control, the hallmark motivations of modern science today.

Prior to that time, medieval science was based on both reason and faith and scientists were looking more for the purpose underlying the phenomena they observed. They were focused on questions of God, the soul, and ethics. There was value placed in direct personal experience. There was a more holistic view of the universe and our participation in it.

The view of the world as a machine replaced the more organic worldview and the era of the Scientific Revolution began. The shift that took place was dramatic. The human senses that had been the prime investigative tools of the scientist were replaced with objective observation, data collecting, and endless analyses.

Scientists began believing that they should restrict themselves to studying the shapes, numbers, and movements of the material world that could be measured. Color, taste, sound, and smell should be ignored – they were merely mental projections. What you saw with your own eyes, what you heard with your own ears, what you tasted, touched, or smelled was replaced with analysis and theory.

Feelings, motives, intentions, personal experience, responsibility, and spirit were cast out from the realm of scientific investigation.

Analysis, objectivity, and detachment, became the principles of science to be taught for the next 500 years, but these practices may be root causes of our separation from the natural world. Next week we will look at whether or not there should be a manned space program and how heart and spirit can be brought back into the practice of science.

Shock and Awe means Shame and Death Part 2?

Nature Part 3
Earth looks beautiful Part 4