One of my favorite scenes in the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" is set in a Congressional hearing on the Apollo 1 disaster--where Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when fire broke out in the capsule while they were conducting a simple radio test with Mission Control. In the scene, Senator Walter Mondale is grilling NASA officials as to how the disaster happened--with the hopes of killing the Moon Mission--since those billions of dollars should have been going to expanding entitlement programs (how did he ever lose in 1984?).
The last person to testify is Frank Borman--who is asked directly by Mondale why he thought his fellow Astronauts died. After a long pause, Borman tells the Congressional panel that the disaster happened because of a "Failure of Imagination." Everyone at NASA was so fixated on the dangers of liftoff and orbit and landing on the Moon and getting back off the surface and back to Earth, that they overlooked the equally great dangers of the most routine things on the ground.
Don't you think that we have suffered that same "Failure of Imagination" leading up to the oil spill in the Gulf? In the decades that we have been doing deep-water drilling no one ever thought "What should we do if one of these wellheads breaks a mile under water?" Or "We should come up with an effective way to trap oil leaking from underwater drilling sites--just in case."
Perhaps the great minds who could have developed solutions to the problems that we now face were busy working on alternative energy projects like more cost-effective solar and wind generators. More likely, they were figuring out how to make cell phones that play games, shoot video, provide wi-fi internet, download songs, text, email, Twitter, Facebook, control the lights in your house, play movies and still don't get any reception in your backyard. You know--the really important stuff.
Hopefully, our latest "surprise" disaster inspires a new focus in the private sector to imagine what is possible--and anticipate what is needed to deal with it.