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Bicycles and space travel

Thursday, 27 May 2004

We have a NASA astronaut visiting the school next month and I plan to ask him a question about the perceived dangers of travelling in space. I’m sure he knows the facts but I’d like to know just how dangerous it really feels.

Space Shuttle, Earth and Moon

Looking around the Internet has revealed that since Yuri Gagarin first went into space in 1961 there have been 18 deaths which have happened on actual missions1 while considerably more have died on the ground2. I have been unable to find an exact figure for the number of people who have been into space but various sources say it is around 400. Thus of all the people who have flown in space about 4.5% have been killed, a figure which in most other walks of life would be unacceptably risky.

I plan asking our visitor just why he and his colleagues continue to fly if they know the risks are as high as they are, as they most surely do. To put it into a context which our kids might possibly be able to relate to I’m going to ask him which would feel most risky to him: travelling in space or riding a bicycle on a motorway.

1 A Russian cosmonaut died in 1967 when his parachute failed to open before landing; three Russians died in 1971 when their capsule depressurised during re-entry; seven astronauts died in 1986 when the shuttle Challenger blew up just after take off and seven more died in 2003 when Columbia broke up on re-entry.

2 91 people died in Kazakhstan in 1960 when a rocket exploded; 50 died when a Vostok booster rocket blew up while being refuelled in 1980. There have been numerous smaller accidents including the fire on Apollo One in 1967 which killed three astronauts on the ground.

Posted 27 May 2004, 21:17 BST

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