Thursday, February 08, 2007

More on Lisa Nowak, NASA's fallen star, and on our fall

It was inevitable, I suppose, that America's space bureaucracy would launch a study into the agency's psychological screening processes for astronaut selection after this week's arrest of Astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges of attempted murder. A story reported by AFP quotes NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale as saying the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Michael Coats, had been ordered to "initiate a review of existing psychological screening for admittance into the astronaut corps."

The article adds that Dale promised that NASA would also launch an investigation "into the existing process for carrying out psychological assessments during an astronaut's career."

If only NASA could launch spaceships with the same predictability and frequency.

The Lisa Nowak case is another illustration of the "Mom is Always Right" Rule. Your mother and my mother -- everyone's mother -- warned us: Idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Oh, Ms. Nowak surely had plenty of work to do: Committees and meetings and training and testing... for... what, exactly? To go into orbit on the obsolete Shuttle, the space truck, ferrying supplies to the International Space Station? It was work -- but it was not enough to keep Ms. Nowak occupied. She found other things to do.

Here's a news flash: Astronauts are volunteers. They signed up to take risks, not to take meetings. When astronauts are selected to lead America's space effort and then given jobs as bureaucrats -- even as bureaucrats who fly jet trainers in their spare time -- some of them will become frustrated. Some will leave the program. One, now, has apparently cracked under the strain of the contradiction.

I am not a risk taker. I wouldn't even ride a roller coaster on a bet. If I didn't blog so much, I might even make an acceptable bureaucrat. But I say to each their own. Let the astronauts take their risks; let me cringe under my desk every time I hear a siren.

NASA was supposed to get us into space. The agency seems more adept at keeping us out. Frankly, by this time in my life, having grown up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, I had hoped that some parts of outer space would already be safe enough for non-risk takers like me. I thought I might someday be a tourist. And I thought it would happen because of the willingness of the Captain Nowaks of the world to blaze the trails for the rest of us.

NASA perhaps is just reflective of our culture: We have become so risk averse, we can't take risks for ourselves -- and we can't let anyone else take risks either. Any risks.

Some illustrations: Many people use cell phones while driving. Certainly we've all seen driving cell phone users who pose a menace to navigation. Because they overuse them. Because they become... distracted. So instead of cracking down on distracted drivers, many cities -- Chicago among them -- have banned everyone from using cell phones while driving.

Now, State Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, New York, proposes a ban on using cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, or other electronic devices while crossing a street in New York City because a few people -- in the throes of so-called "iPod oblivion" -- have been injured or killed, walking into a street without paying attention.

Zay N. Smith, in this morning's Quick Takes column in the Chicago Sun-Times reports today that, "Organizers of the annual festival in Hartlepool, England, citing risk assessments, will no longer allow sack races, three-legged races or egg-and-spoon races." Our grandparents were lucky to survive!

And speaking of survival, did your kids survive their rides in grocery carts? Didn't you? Does your family take sick each and every week because of those pesky bacteria lurking from the last unclean users of your shopping cart? Nevertheless, Arkansas is poised to enact a law that will, according to the linked ABC News story, "push grocery stores to provide sanitation wipes at the door so customers don't have to wrap their hands around the last shopper's bacteria."

Let us not pause to assess the actual danger posed: No, researchers at the University of Arizona "found that shopping carts were loaded with more saliva, bacteria and even fecal matter than escalators, public telephones, and even public bathrooms." So let's all say "eeeeeeeeeewwwwwww" and do something about it, no matter how stupid or unnecessary -- or even dangerous.

Last June I did a piece on a news report about a couple of studies which demonstrated that clean living is making us sicker; that our society's unreasoning germ phobia "may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis." (The link is to my post; the Yahoo! News link therein has since expired.) When we try and cut ourselves off from contact with germs and bacteria we make ourselves weaker and more susceptible to illness in the process.

Just this week I did a post about the recall of nearly a million Easy Bake Ovens because five careless or unsupervised kids got burned.

One final example. Here is a picture of one of the 'devices' that shut down Boston on January 31:

Doesn't 'device' sound like a dangerous word? Oooooooooh. Scary.

I am also informed, from reading several articles, that the extended finger is believed to be a middle finger. Without that information, I might not have recognized that as a finger at all. Nevertheless, younger and more sensitive viewers are cautioned to avert their eyes as necessary.

Apparently someone in Boston thought that, if terrorists were going to plant bombs around a city, they would use bombs in a brightly lighted case depicting someone with middle finger pointed skyward.

Lest you think I've made this up, herewith a picture of the removal of one of the 'suspected terrorist devices':

As a society, we can assess risk to several decimal places -- but, as these illustrations show, we can't evaluate risk worth beans. NASA reflects that societal failing -- and it shouldn't. We need to let the smart people that NASA hires as astronauts determine levels of acceptable risk in space projects... and then really go where no one has gone before... so that we don't wind up, in wig and diaper, going to Orlando.


Lahdeedah said...

When I was in the Air Force, I had one of those jobs for risk-averse people who would like to take risks but are too risk-averse to do so... public affairs... I got to interview them all... and in my time I spent a lot of time with true risk takers, and I have to say, they are all sane, until they get bored.

Anyhow, I got to know some members of the bomb squad. On duty, they stay calm and cool and collected and do things no sane person would (defuse live bombs, say) but the stress of that takes its toll, and this is why no one was surprised when a group of them got drunk and did push ups outside my friend's dorm room at 2 a.m. In lingerie. We courteously had the film developed off-base. The point is, they did it because there's just something in their blood that needs more danger, risk, excitement, than the rest of us.

Okay this woman went nuts. Lovesick. A bit Shakespearean. But that, I agree, is what happens when high-adrenalin risk lovers don't have any high-adrenalin things to do. They obsess and focus.

Of course I could have just said 'Yeah totally' but I've been DYING to get that push-ups in lingerie story out for years.

The Curmudgeon said...

And I, for one, am grateful you shared the story.

Shelby said...

NASA is being kept from going where no man has gone before. I wouldn't blame NASA on the scope and mileage and ship shape of ships. There is more to this story - to who is limiting who.

Linda said...

I totally agree with you on the amount of overkill that our country has taken upon itself. Pretty soon we are all going to be like the boy in the plastic bubble and sheltered from everything just in case.

Honestly, I don't know how any of us survived our youth. I distinctly remember being able to bring peanut butter to school as no one had an allergy to peanuts and now even the sacred institution of peanut butter and jelly has restrictions on it. People seem to be sicker than they've ever been and I think you hit the nail right on the head as to why.

As for Captain Nowak, since time immortal people have done really stupid things in the name of love (myself included) so I think I can empathize with her a little bit. Not that I ever went the route of attempted murder that is!

Heather said...


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, and all too true.

I'm not entirely sure it's down to the idea of risk assessment which is sensible in itself: I think the problem has coming about form insurance companies & penny pinchers hiding behind the risk assessments as an excuse not to do something.

The people who trip over their own fat asses and then run to a lawyer are to blame. The people who spend all their budget on decorating their office and then canceling a school trip because of 'risk' are to blame.

The human race is on a downward spiral, and I'm not sure hat the answer is...

The Curmudgeon said...

Linda -- thank you for your clarification!

East -- who is limiting who? Can they be exposed and moved out of the way?

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

naw curmy, they're just a bunch of wackos. now if i had been the one to go into space, see, i would have been real good when i got back. made women proud. i still remember sally ride, how proud i was to see her stepping off the shuttle, waiting for her remarks, so happy a woman had gone finally! off she steps, and out of her mouth was the following: "ewwww it was soooo much fun!" yeesh. wackos. all of 'em... drat.

smiles, bee

Anonymous said...

Some brilliant links here again, I may post up on them over the weekend, though I am trying not to blog at weekends. You really couldn't make it up, I thought we were just mad in the UK.

SQT said...

I hadn't really thought of Nowak being a risk taker without enough to do. I basically figured she cracked under the strain.

But I have known a few adrenaline junkies in my time and they are built differently. I remember watching Travis Pastrana (stunt motorcyclist) do the double backflip on his bike and land it. It was incredible, but if had missed he'd probably be a parapalegic at 20-something. It sure as heck isn't worth it in my book.

I've also knew a guy who wanted to be a cop just for the rush of it. Fortunately he didn't make it.

Lawfrog said...

AMEN!! There are not enough words in the English language to tell you how much I agree with this. I am so sick of the constant rules and regulations to save us from ourselves.

If someone gets killed while crossing the street because they were in iPod oblivion, I say that's just natural selection and we ought to be glad to have the idiot out of the gene pool. Instead, we assume everyone will succumb to that sort of idiocy and make rules to limit it as much as we can.

Problem is, there are more routes to idiocy than numbers in Pi so it's not worth trying to regulate it.

katherine. said...

(There is too much to comment on in your post)

The really brilliant frequently battle demons the rest of us merely intelligent mortals can never fully understand. I don’t know Nowak personally, but I have been blessed and burdened to know a few brilliant minds. I am guessing you gotta be a bit beyond borderline brilliant to be an astronaut.

As to love…real or imagined…while I have never gone to the extremes this woman has…I most certainly would NOT want everything I have done in the throes of passion to be published in every corner of the world. No f-ing way.

I am adamant in my contention we are killing ourselves by killing every germ around us. We don’t allow our bodies resistance mechanisms a chance to arm our bodies naturally. All of these prevention drugs breakdown our God-given force field to leave us exposed and vulnerable. Stupidity.

I didn’t follow the Boston incident too closely…so I can’t really speak to that. But I have this inkling of how I would feel if I read thru all of the details.

I am only gonna say we are allowing our fear of what maybe might happen to give power to the wrong people. Stupid individuals and those who are loser wannabes are being used to eliminate the situations which teach and give us (and our children) depth of experience and the ability to learn life lessons. We are giving over our lives…all of our choices…our options and our LAWS to those who want to step in and control everything we think and everything we are allowed do.

No sack races? No Three legged or egg-n-spoon runs? No Easy Bake Oven cause it is hot?

The laws that are pending off the top of my head….are starting to scare me just a bit…no cell phones…no I-pod listening…no disciplining your children...on the heels of controlling what kind of foods we can eat and where we can smoke...sheesh.

Like the “device” in Boston….I’m holding up my middle finger as well.

Shelby said...

Budget makers limit NASA - and we the people elect the budgeteers.

Have you written your letter to your Congressman about your wishes? You are one of many in charge.

Anonymous said...

i think you are just a cower and wasting your time on blogging about Lisa Nowak...the civilization has evolved to its current stage for millions of years all because of the risks we have taken and will continue taking in life...