Thomas P.M. Barnett
The mysterious crash last week of an Air France jetliner, coming not that long after the first U.S. airline casualties in over two years (the February crash of a commuter plane in Buffalo), naturally puts frequent fliers a bit on edge. But in truth, flying has never been safer — especially for Americans. Despite living in this post-9/11 age of transnational terrorism, the risk of death during air travel has plummeted to the point where we now measure it in the "per billions" of passengers.
That's what nine decades of constant innovation from the private-sector airline industry has yielded. It wasn't always pretty — and it was plenty dangerous at first. But all that experimentation and risk-taking paid off — and it did so relatively quickly. Remember: The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, and within half a century planes were reasonably safe and routine, if still too expensive for the masses to enjoy. Because of that early push — that benefit of the doubt that smart people, when left to their own futuristic devices, can make the unimaginable happen — just about anybody can afford to fly (fly!) nowadays.
Compare, if you will, the rapid developments in winged flight with our frustrating progress on the promise of space travel. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in 1961 and, in the almost half-century that's ensued, only those vaunted few with the "right stuff" (or spare billions in personal wealth) have been allowed to participate, in large part because the exploitation of outer space has remained a decidedly government-dominated affair — absurdly expensive, bizarrely over-bureaucratized and subject to the ever-present evil of myopic militarism ("Can't we at least stick a frickin' laser on it?").
All I can say is, thank God we never created a NASA for airplanes. Otherwise, we'd have to suspend the entire space industry's operations for months on end after every crash, lapsing into periods of official mourning each time some "national hero" was lost in airspace. Forgive me, but compared to all the inglorious ways people die here on earth, there's nothing particularly noble about dying in space — even if nobody can hear you scream.
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