A Failure of Imagination (full post)

“A failure of imagination,” is a phrase supposedly spoken by Astronaut Frank Borman during the senate hearings of the Apollo I accident.  I learned of this phrase from the great miniseries From Earth to the Moon.   In the second episode of the series, the horrific events resulting in the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee are dramatically re-enacted.  During the inquiry many errors of design and construction were examined as to their role in the accident with some people interested in seeing the program suspended as too dangerous.  When Mr. Borman was asked directly what caused the accident he replied “A failure of imagination.” 

Whether this is an accurate portrayal of historical fact or artistic license, I do not know; however, the words and the explanation given have stuck with me.  In the show, Frank Borman went on to elaborate what he said.  He wanted to express that, while there were problems within the program, there was not a sense of disregard for safety as some would portray.  In reality, many people within and without NASA failed to imagine a fire occurring on the launch pad because the focus of the scientists, engineers, and astronauts was on accidents occurring during the flight.  They failed to connect a greater risk of fire to a test in an unfueled rocket; a test that had been done the same way through several missions without prior incident.  Basically, everyone failed to plan for the conundrum of circumstances that occurred that fateful day.

What I personally took away from this idea is to never trust anyone who talks in absolutes.  Your money is completely safe, nuclear power is safe and clean, or oil can be safely exploited in wildlife sanctuaries without risk.  Mankind and modern history is a living testament to the power of a failure of imagination.  I bet the designers of the Titanic failed to imagine their wonderful creation crashing into an iceberg.  What about the operators at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl failing to imagine the disasters that occurred at these Nuclear Plants.  We very much know the failure of imagining a tsunami that could wipe out all the back-up power needed to prevent meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi.  I am sure that the first bank to repackage mortgages into mortgage back derivatives did not foresee the global economic catastrophe they would create.  (I tend to believe that they did not see the potential even though I feel they knew they were repackaging bad debt so they could sell it off their books.  As time went on; however, I think they knew what was coming and knew it would not hurt them but us.)

I’ll bet Hilter failed to imagine the Russian’s defeating his army just as the French failed to imagine how easily the German’s crossed the Maginot line.  Einstein probably failed to imagine the lingering fear of Nuclear annihilation that was a result of his equation E=MC2.  Countries like Cambodia failed to imagine that Communistic fervor could lead to the atrocities of Pol Pot. We have been following our singular lack of imagination from the birth of man until now.  This is why I have problems with any religion, government, or scientists who say they know the answers to our problems.  They may know things, which could help now, but they cannot, or in some cases will not, see all the consequences of their actions.  Scientists do not know that there is no God.  Popes do not know that there is a God.  Companies do not know that the product they are giving you is absolutely safe.  Consumers do not know that companies intentionally misled them.  What I am trying to say is to never take things for granted because someone says you should.  They may be just failing to imagine what they say is not the truth.

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2 thoughts on “A Failure of Imagination (full post)

  1. Very well said, Rob. Though I do have to say that the burden of proof for a god is on those making the claim. Regardless, you are absolutely right that there are no absolutes.

    Wait…did I just say… 😉

    Seriously, I had not heard of that phrase, but it is a very apt way of describing humanity’s outlook on life. We fail to imagine a lot of the consequences of our actions. But how could we imagine *all* the possible scenarios? I think, there are just too many, and sometimes, tragedy just happens. At least, as much as triumph does. 😦

  2. Yes, I have to agree that context is important in this situation because it is also possible to fail to imagine the good outcomes of a situation, which I see happening with Social Security and Medicare from a Republican point of view. I think what is most important to take away from this post is the ability to keep an open mind. Do not wed yourself to one idea so completely that you blind yourself to what can go wrong. If you watch the episode of From Earth to the Moon, you will also get the sense of a need to watch your need for someone to blame. You may fail to imagine that people can fail without doing it on purpose. As for God, I beleive the burden is on both sides because our collective knowledge, given the size of the preceived universe, is just a drop in the bucket. While we have made great strides toward understanding the world around us, we are also finding out just how little we really know.

    For instance, a long time ago, I questioned the truth of absolute nothingness. I could not wrap my mind around it. My only recourse for an answer, then and now, was to fall back on the idea of cutting a length of rope in half and then cutting one of the halves in half again. The idea was that you could cut halves in half ad infinitum and never get to the point of having nothing to cut (an absolute). Well, recently on the Colbert Report (I beleive) there was a scientist on promoting his book of his theory of nothingness, which he claimed actually had weight. His idea was that even in nothingness particles were appearing and disappearing constantly. I don’t know all the details but wow, I may have been right.

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