Where Spaceships Go To Die

As I was looking up the birthday news about my favorite (dwarf) planet and the fact that we should be getting the closest pictures from the New Horizons probe from Pluto on my birthday, perhaps the best present NASA has given me since I reviewed a book on the psychology of space exploration [1], I managed to come upon a melancholy article that discussed a remote region in the South Pacific, far away from any islands, that serves as the space graveyard for Russia and Europe [2]. There was a lot about this article I found melancholy and worthy of some reflection, for although the death or destruction of anything is something that ought to inspire reflection, there is something about the death of spaceships that seems particularly sad in light of the way in which their service lives run.

Although space is not a subject I write about as often as other subjects [3], it is the subject of one of my short books [4]. That means the subject is on my radar, so to speak. The mechanics of this space graveyard are fairly straightforward. A space agency has a decrepit satellite or space station of some kind, and wants to bury it in the ocean rather than let it remain in space derelict. The space agency makes sure that no flights are below, hopes that the ships going through the little-traveled region are up-to-date on the risks, and then the vessel goes into a controlled dive into the atmosphere, losing most of its mass as it burns up, and then its scattered remains lie in the ocean where few fish live and where they will likely never be encountered by anyone. This pattern repeats itself every time that a space vessel’s useful life is deemed to be over.

There is a lot about this that seems to be a waste. For one, space missions are exceedingly expensive, and it seems particularly wasteful that these missions are built with such narrow time frames, where a space station or telescope or satellite is only planned to be useful for ten or fifteen or twenty years. Considering even the short life of human beings, it would seem that something that costs many millions of dollars to put into space ought to at least be put into space made to last, and at least worth being made in such a way that it could be cannibalized for later purposes. After all, what good is such a massive expense if there is nothing to reuse afterwards. Even the famously expensive castles of Western Europe were used as quarries when later generations no longer needed the massive battlements and where the walls were too restrictive of growing towns in more peaceful areas and were no longer useful in protecting the commonfolk from military threats. As expensive as they were, those massive works were built to last hundreds of years, and were able to be repurposed when their original use was obsolete. What would it take to do such a thing in space?

There is something else melancholy about the spaceship graveyard at the bottom of the ocean. The article I read [2] closed with the following statement: “So the Space Age’s watery tomb contains only broken, twisted, and burned fragments of the spacecraft that once orbited our planet.” It seems a greatly undeserved fate that machines and space infrastructure that serve us so loyally and in the difficult conditions of outer space receive no other burial or respect than to only leave behind broken, twisted, and burned fragments of what were once glorious and state-of-the-art creations. Do we have no more honor or respect for that which serves us than to use it up until it is all gone and then leave its fragmentary remains as a mute testimony to the way in which we reward others for their service? To be sure, machines are not people, but one would hope that at least by showing respect in general for that which serves us, we may better respect both the people and the machines we work with. No good servant deserves to be a well-done faithful servant, at least not well-done in that fashion.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/scholarly-book-reviews/

http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/digital/pdf/issues/2014/ASPJ-Mar-Apr-2014.pdf

[2] http://gizmodo.com/this-watery-graveyard-holds-161-sunken-spaceships-1703212211?utm_source=taboola

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/book-review-there-are-no-space-aliens/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/when-i-look-at-the-stars-i-feel-like-myself/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/its-a-lonely-galaxy-out-there/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/the-end-of-an-era/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/into-empty-lands/

[4] http://www.amazon.com/Terra-Nullis-Nathan-Albright-ebook/dp/B00LLYU7E8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404881076&sr=8-1&keywords=nathan+albright

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Where Spaceships Go To Die

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