25 January 2006

A woman who dreamed for her students

It's a cliche. "Everyone remembers where they were when..."

Third grade, Ms. Gilbert's class. She believed in a multi-media approach, and I remember playing one of the early versions of Myst or something similar in her classroom - it was I think a text-based computer game, in which you'd enter a room and have to solve a puzzle. Reminds me a bit of the MIT Mystery Hunt, in retrospective.

On this particular day, she brought a TV into the classroom. The whole class huddled around the small screen the best we could, jostling for space and to see between heads. It didn't matter if I was next to the girl who bashed me over the head with a lunchbox the year before, or the boy who didn't know that "dilate" was a word and thought the eye doctor diluted my eyes. It just mattered that I could see the screen, for today we were going to watch a teacher fly!

Of course you know the end of the story. It was 1986 and the 20-odd pairs of eight-year-old eyes didn't know that we were to see the first death of a civilian astronaut, in fact I believe the first televised death of any astronauts, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. We didn't even understand at first what had just happened, we were only eight years old, and I think even adults didn't get it at first. I don't recall any of us crying, just a stunned silence that lasted forever. I'm sure at some point Ms. Gilbert found her voice and explained to us that the astronauts were dead.

As an aside, one of the things I always tell people when looking at statistics (such as taking averages) is to see what they're measuring. Wikipedia claims that 2% of attempted spaceflights have resulted in the deaths of their crew, or around 22 people total. [1] If we had the same statistics in car driving, that'd be you having a fatal accident after 5 weeks of daily commuting. Space flight is much less safe than driving a car, per trip.

If you instead counted the number of spaceflight fatalities per day, counting all countries down to 0.1% of the top country, we get 2.8167*10^4 days [2], or 6.76*10^5 hours of spaceflight, or one death for every (roughly) 30,000 hours of spaceflights. For cars, there were 37,142 people killed in cars in the US in the year 2004 [3] (not counting pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.). Assuming the average commute is 45 min or 0.75 hr, or 1.5 hr round-trip, and a population of around 300 million in the US, this amounts to 1.17*10^11 hours spent on the road a year, or one death in every 3,000,000 hours. Space flight is also much less safe than driving a car, per hour.

I couldn't find numbers on how many miles people have traveled in space, so I can't tell you that. I expect that if I could, I'd get that space flight is much MORE safe than driving a car, per mile.

Back to the story, Saturday is the twenty-year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. While I remember the event as the ship "blowing up," what really happened was that the large pieces (such as the boosters and the crew compartment) separated from each other. There were large forces involved, but not enough to kill people, so the crew likely survived the ship breakup. [4] There was no ejection capability in the crew compartment. Pressure dropped enough after the explosion that some of the crew blacked out, but at least two remained conscious enough to activate a six-minute air reserve designed to help in a ground emergency. [5] All the crew were likely alive until the free-falling crew compartment impacted the water - the only uncertain factor was whether and how many of them were conscious at the time.

*shrug* I'm not sure what more I wanted to say here, or why I wanted to say it. Maybe just that she was an amazing woman, and there will always be people willing to risk their lives for education, and for encouraging children. She wasn't even a scientist - she was a history teacher. And she, along with six other crew members, died in the process of becoming history.

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