Having a secret fondness for the giant “Oooops!” story, I was naturally delighted by the case of the Mars Orbiter. This debacle, in which we lost a $125 million climate satellite, occurred because the contractor, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, used feet and inches in its engineering specifications, whereas NASA uses meters and millimeters – and no one noticed the discrepancy. Consequently, when the thing was actually sent out into space, it came apart. Bye-bye, Orbiter. Bye-bye, $125 million.
Not since the cheery news of the Y2K problem (“Ooops!”) have we seen such a lovely FUBAR. A FUBAR, you will recall, is an advanced SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fouled Up as compared to Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. The more pedestrian finders of morals-to-the-tale have deduced that the loss of the Orbiter proves we should all go to the metric system. I’m sure we should.
It makes such perfect sense. It’s a better way to count and actually easier, as well. But I’ve always put the need for conversion to the metric system somewhere around 724th on my list of Things We Really Need to Do in this country. After losing $125 million down the tubes, I suppose we should move it up a few notches.
The trouble with converting to the metric system as a political proposition – aside from the fact it’s the kind of thing Michael Dukakis used to champion – is that it’s bound to set off our Know-Nothings. All the people who believe in black helicopters and that there’s really a plan for a New World Order that will put our military under the command of the United Nations will go absolutely bat-doo if we try to introduce something as “foreign” as the metric system. They will go even more ape than normal.
Can’t you hear them now? “Feet and inches were good enough for my pappy and my grandpappy….” I yield to no one except Walt Whitman in my fondness for the volk Americana, but you have to admit, getting us to learn something new is like climbing Mount Everest (said she, who still can’t program her V.C.R.). If we were to hire the finest minds of Madison Avenue and get them to make thirty-second commercials teaching us about the metric system – sort of like Sesame Street for grown-ups – we would probably catch on in a year or two.
But I think that there’s a larger moral to this tale. The Mars Orbiter, Y2K, the time that the Pentagon lost track of $15 billion and other great “Oooops!” of our time serve to remind us that experts are not necessarily a reliable source.
One of the more obvious impending cases of “Ooops!” is radioactive waste, some of which remains deadly for thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Our “experts” cheerily tell us, “Noooo problem.” They’re going to figure out some way to deep-six this stuff in a structure that will have to last longer than any human civilization ever has, and indeed longer than all of human civilization in toto – possibly even longer than the last major shift in tectonic plates. We’re not talking centuries or millennia here, but eons. The least the experts could do is quit sounding so damn sure of themselves.
The recent nuclear accident in Japan is yet another wake-up call, and it’s high time we stopped pushing the snooze button after every Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal and all the other accidents that were never supposed to happen. I have suggested before that the First Rule of Holes needs to be applied: When You Are in One, Stop Digging. In other words, don’t make any more of this poisonous crap until we figure out how to deal with what we already have.
An even better idea comes from a retired engineer with Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth I happened to run into in Indianapolis. This gentleman – such an engineer he still carries several pens in his shirt pocket years after his retirement – told me he had always believed that when a new model helicopter is tested, the engineers who designed it should ride along with the test pilot. As Sam Johnson suggested, it would have the same happy effect as the prospect of being hanged in the morning.
Why not apply that rule to other dangerous enterprises? Bet you anything the engineers at Lockheed and NASA would have noticed that “Ooops!” if they had had to get on the Orbiter themselves. If the people who think radioactive waste and toxic waste are so safe had to live next to it themselves, bet we’d get some amazing safety measures – or at least the obvious admission that there’s no known way to make this stuff safe.
I realize this is a variant on now-common protests against environmental racism. “If this stuff is so safe, why don’t they put it in the rich people’s neighborhoods?” There is something cheering about the prospect of burying toxic waste under the River Oaks Country Club golf course or putting a nuclear waste dump next to the U.S. Capitol instead of in Sierra Blanca. Aside from the populist charm of it, we’d be assured wonderfully high safety standards.
Even so, the human propensity for the FUBAR will be with us as long as Murphy’s Law is still in effect. The trick is not to make mistakes that are irreversible – like radioactive waste and putting a hole in the ozone layer. We can afford a $125 million mistake (gulp). We can’t afford to poison the planet.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her forthcoming book, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.