It is thirty years ago today that Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut, joining an expedition to the Mir space station. Sharman was chosen from the 13,000 applications for the place on the mission. The advertisement for applicants reputedly said, “astronaut wanted, no previous experience required.”
Born in 1963, Sharman would have recalled the latter years of the so-called Space Race, the decade and a half when the Soviet Union and the United States vied with each other to be the first to achieve particular goals.
It was details of events during that time that would have dissuaded many people from even thinking of applying for such a mission, even if they possessed the extreme physical and intellectual capacity required for such a role. In plain terms, it was something that seemed extremely dangerous, rockets seemed to go wrong.
Apollo 7 was the first mission that I recall. It was in space during my eighth birthday in October 1968. It was the first manned mission since the Apollo 1 mission the previous year in which the crew of three had died of asphyxiation on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Stories of the deaths would have formed a background to the coverage of the Apollo 7 mission and, naturally, it was the story of the disaster that lingered long after the story of the successful mission. Perhaps the story of the tragedy of Apollo 1 was reinforced by the story of the fatal crash in the same year of the Soviet Soyuz 1 spacecraft.
After the successful first moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the most memorable Apollo story was that of Apollo 13. The close scrape with fatal disaster seemed to be almost a more gripping tale than Armstrong and Aldrin’s walk on the moon. In more recent times, it is not the succession of Space Shuttle flights that ended safely that remain in the memory, it is the tragedies in 1986 and 2003.
A web search revealed that total of fifteen astronauts and four cosmonauts have died during in-flight accidents, not nearly as many as I imagined. Why do the fatal missions loom so large in the memory? Why did the story of Helen Sherman evoke thoughts of being blasted to doom?
Discussing the activity of “doomscrolling” with Year 8 students last week (an activity that apparently refers to the inclination to scroll through feeds spotting bad news stories), I discovered that human beings are hard-wired to take note of the worst stories, that evolution has fitted us for expecting the worst. It explains my misremembering of the Space Age.
We’re bound to take more notice of risk than reward, since in Nature mistakes are often fatal.
One of my students pointed out to me that for primitive man the wrong assumption could easily lead to death.