If the weather cooperates this weekend, history will be made: SpaceX is preparing to fly its first humans to orbit aboard a new Crew Dragon spaceship.
The big event had been set for Wednesday afternoon, but 17 minutes before the scheduled liftoff, SpaceX scrubbed the launch due to bad weather.
The Demo-2 mission will now attempt to launch at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday. If it goes off as planned, this will mark the first mission involving astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
Will you watch? Parents, will you tune in with your children?
“On the one hand, it’s a great educational opportunity,” said physics and astronomy professor David Garfinkle, of Oakland University. “But if by some chance the rocket were to blow up and the astronauts were to be killed, it would be very scary.”
Considering the risks
There’s a lot at play when it comes to this launch. NASA told Business Insider it estimated a 1-in-276 chance the flight could be fatal, and a 1-in-60 chance that some problem would cause the mission to fail, but not kill the crew.
Still, NASA astronaut Bob Behnken has said he and Doug Hurley are “really comfortable” with the risks.
When it comes to the odds and the numbers in thinking about missions like this one and the associated safety concerns, it’s hard to put things into context, Garfinkle said.
“It’s always dangerous (when it comes to space travel),” the professor said. “Exactly what the danger is, is hard to estimate because each vehicle that you use -- especially a new one -- doesn’t really have enough experience to calculate the odds. For example, if you (looked into) a certain model of car, you might have tens of thousands of them on the road. So from experience, you can figure how safe they are. Comparatively, there are so few rocket launches. So you’re making educated guesses, at best.”
It seems there’s just more uncharted territory when it comes to space travel.
“The first astronauts really started out as test pilots,” Garfinkle said. “ … They were used to risking their lives for the good of the country.”
And historically speaking, there have been disasters over the years that have reminded us of the dangers.
“One of the things shocking about (the Challenger explosion) was, the shuttle had flown so often that people had the notion that it was safe -- even a teacher went up,” Garfinkle said. “(That kind of proved), even if you've been doing this a while, it’s still a dangerous occupation.”
‘Rewards ... could outweigh the risks’
So that brings us back to that question for parents and those with children in the home. Should they watch, considering the risks?
“I think that the rewards of having children watch it could outweigh the risks,” said Robert Fink, the counseling professor emeritus at Oakland University and a practicing child behavior counselor.
Fink acknowledged the risks, but said they actually provide a good jumping-off point to start a bigger conversation that goes well beyond space travel.
“There’s a great many things we do in life that have some risk involved,” Fink said. “How do we learn to be careful? We practice and rehearse, think ahead (and) anticipate possible problems. How do we learn not to get impatient and (not to) do something fast, just because it's exciting to us? We learn to be careful, and go over things that could go wrong. We try to take steps to eliminate or minimize (those risks). It's a wonderful object lesson.”
And let’s say that the mission becomes a worst-case scenario, and things turn fatal.
“Letting children not see it, because something could go wrong -- well, if it does go wrong, they'll be saturated with it anyway,” Fink said. “You're still going to have to deal with it anyway, in a trauma context.”
Of course, this entire discussion depends on how old your children are.
Kids at different ages will understand things differently, and your conversation will be somewhat different.
“With a very young child, I still think there could be good reason to let them watch it with you,” Fink said. “If something went terribly wrong, they wouldn’t understand what happened (logistically), but they’d understand that you’re upset. They’d ask … not so much about (the technical details), but what it would mean for them to suffer that kind of a loss.”
Back to that lesson plan
And again, there’s a lesson here.
It might be useful to say, “The space program has gone on for a long time. A couple times there were disasters, but usually, it's very successful. We try to be really careful, but we can never be 100% sure. But we can learn steps to help minimize that risk.”
Another example you could bring up, if your child is old enough to understand or has experience flying on an airplane, is commercial air travel.
“If you’re going to take your kids on an airplane, of course there's some chance the plane could go down,” Fink said. “But it becomes really important to follow those instructions they give you before the plane takes off about keeping your seatbelt on, what to do if there's an emergency, if you need (extra) oxygen, how to look to see where exit doors are, things like that.
“Risk is most frightening when we feel helpless.”
An exciting moment for science
Fink brought up one final point that really resonated.
In our current culture, there seem to be a lot of people trying to “debunk” and undermine science and expertise as things to value -- and that goes hand-in-hand with this idea that an opinion is all you need.
But assuming this launch goes well, “It would be great for kids to see a successful, triumphant moment of science,” Fink said. “That would say to them, ‘Wow there is something special here.’ Assuming it goes well, we could use a little bit of that excitement.”
The mission is launching from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The plan, if all goes well, is for the crew to fly to the International Space Station, and stay for up to 110 days before returning to Earth inside Crew Dragon.