In just three months -- from the Challenger spacecraft explosion on Jan. 28 to the Chernobyl nuclear fire last weekend -- the world's two superpowers have sustained disastrous failures in highly advanced technological systems in which each had invested considerable national pride.
Is an insight to be gained from this conjunction of events?
Are communism and capitalism simultaneously discovering the human limit of technological complexity?
Does the world need to invent better ways of creating and managing high technology?
Or is the near coincidence of the accidents and their prominence in the mass media leading people to exaggerate their portent in a world that accepts tens of thousands of deaths every year in automobile accidents?
Specialists in such questions -- historians of science, analysts of technology policy and others -- appear to have reached no consensus.
Perhaps the most ominous views are represented by Harvard's Everett Mendelsohn, a science historian who happened to return from his most recent visit to the Soviet Union the day of the Chernobyl accident.
"Each of these technological systems -- nuclear power and the shuttle -- have pushed the development of technology to great, great complexity and have pushed humans to the edge of our capacities" to understand and operate them, Mendelsohn said.
"This tells us that when you rely on systems this complex, you can't expect perfection. You have to expect there are going to be accidents," he added.
Mendelsohn said the examples of Challenger and Chernobyl "should give us real pause as to the degree to which we should rely on highly technical systems." As a prime example, he cited the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" antimissile defense system. Even its proponents say the technology would be vastly more complex than anything ever attempted.
George Washington University's Robert W. Rycroft, a specialist on technological risk assessment, said the disasters "show us that our technological optimism has come home to roost. We're learning that these incredibly sophisticated technologies are not as risk-free as we thought."
Others drew a sharp distinction between the Soviet and American accidents, noting that the meltdown, in 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., would have posed a major radiation hazard to the world if the plant -- like Chernobyl -- lacked a "containment" dome to trap radiation.
The Soviet Union, said Robert H. Kupperman, a science and technology specialist at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, routinely disregards safety precautions that are considered essential in the United States.
"They have taken incredible risks," Kupperman said. "In fact, they are almost devoid of any sensitivity to safety concerns. I think the Soviets have been extremely callous."
Kupperman attributed the greater concern for safety here to a free press, which has publicized nuclear power plant accidents and given voice to demands for such precautions as containment domes.
"In the absence of a free press, we're perfectly capable of being every bit as callous as they are," Kupperman said.
Others noted that despite all the perceived disaster wrought by Challenger and Chernobyl as well as a host of environmental toxins, life in the industrial world today is far safer and more healthful than in decades and centuries past. Medical, nutritional and sanitation technologies have raised life expectancies. Rates of death and injury in industrial accidents have been declining over the decades, according to Census Bureau figures.
Kupperman also said the Challenger accident should not be compared with a nuclear meltdown because the shuttle was known to involve a high risk of disaster. In the aftermath of the explosion, astronauts and National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said that, even though shuttle flights appeared to be routine, everyone knew that a disaster was bound to occur someday.
No complex engineering works perfectly all the time, various NASA people said, and no fail-safe precautions could eliminate every chance of an accident. The shuttle was considered essentially operational, rather than experimental, even though its safety depended on thousands of components that had to work perfectly and had no backups.
Kupperman said the known dangers of the shuttle make it unfair to compare its experimental technology with that of a nuclear power plant, which is the product of several decades of development and refinement.
In the Soviet Union, the process of refinement has lagged behind ours. Only in recent years have the Soviets begun building containment structures over some of their reactors.
Mendelsohn agreed with Kupperman that U.S. reactors probably have more safety features than Soviet reactors, "but I wouldn't for an instant sit back and feel comfortable. They can still go bad."
Whether one can sit back and feel comfortable, said Rycroft, the specialist in risk assessment, depends on one's perception of the danger posed.
"People have extremely different and usually very unrealistic perceptions of risk," Rycroft said. The classic example is people's estimation of the relative dangers of flying and of driving a car.
Most people spend their entire lives in natural "background" radiation that is higher than the levels of Chernobyl fallout being recorded in parts of Europe. Even where the fallout is reported several times as high as background radiation, most of it is expected to decay within days. Background radiation will not entirely decay for millions of years.
Rycroft noted that even governments are vulnerable to skewed risk assessments when it comes to radiation.
"When our government first learned about Chernobyl," Rycroft said, "it talked in overly dramatic terms about the radiation. Even the government rhetoric gets out of hand. The reverse was true at Three Mile Island, when there was no rhetoric at all. It makes a difference whether they trust the source of the information. We tend not to trust what foreign governments report."
If the fear of fallout from a reactor accident could be translated into a proportionate fear of fallout from a nuclear war, Mendelsohn said, the Chernobyl accident might have some benefit.
"The radiation from this thing is minuscule compared to what the world would face in a nuclear war," Mendelsohn said. "Maybe it could help us deal a little more intelligently with the technology of nuclear war."