Friday, February 05, 2010

NASA's New Direction: Safety First?

Should racecar driving, sky diving, and climbing Mount Everest all be banned until such time as it can be made perfectly safe.

All of these activities claim a number of lives every year. None of them can b said to involve some sort of crucial social function - unlike being a first responder or a soldier in times of war - that justify the risk. Yet, all of these activities are allowed to continue year after year in spite of the deaths and injuries that result.

I've been busy defending the course that President Obama has decided to take with respect to putting humans in space. That course is to cancel another set of flag-and-footprint missions to the moon and to use the money instead to create a set of private companies capable of launching people into space.

If the question were asked, which would be better to have in the year 2020 for the future of space development, a government owned and operated moon base or private companies capable of selling tickets to private citizens to go into orbit, I'm suggesting that the latter will have the better long-term impact.

One of the objections being raised against this option is that the private space companies will not provide safety. I suppose that the fear is that they will cut corners, sacrificing safety for profit.

There are a number of examples of this - of people using substandard materials and taking less care for safety and for getting a lot of people killed in the process. The HMS Titanic was built with substandard material and contained too few life boats - for the sake of profit. This should be a genuine concern.

However, there is a difference between foolish risks taken for profit, and calculated risks taken because the person taking the risk thinks the end is worthwhile.

Consider race-car driving, for example; or hiking to the top of Mount Everest, or sky diving.

In all of these activities, there are standard procedures that people can follow to make the activity safer. However, there is still some risk involved. There is enough risk that one can ask the question of whether people should be so hung up with safety that the whole project is basically cancelled.

Imagine closing down all the race tracks until racing can be made safe because of a wreck during the Indianapolis 500, or ending all alpine mountain climbing after a death until such time as we can guarantee the safety of every mountain climber.

One of the things that it is important to feed into this equation is that there are people who enjoy these activities, in some part, because of the risks. You are not doing them any favors by telling them they are prohibited from racing cars, sky diving, climbing Mount Everest, or riding a rocket into Earth Orbit. You are, in fact, diminishing the quality of their lives, denying them of a potential for some of the experiences that make a life worth living.

Human space flight should strive for the same type of safety that we find in automobile racing, sky diving, and alpine mountain climbing. That is to say, there should be a certain st of precautions that one goes through to make sure that nobody suffers out of stupidity or negligence. However, it should not be the type of safety that seeks to make sure that nobody dies.

People will die in space.

Rockets will blow up. Micrometeorites will shoot through astronauts on space walks, capsules will leak, astronauts will strike out in anger at fellow crew members and land some fatal blow. All of this will happen in space, just as they do on Earth.

The thing is, there are people around who are willing to take those risks. Thy consider their lives better if they are able to participate in this type of project. Some of them take risks for no reason at all other than to entertain themselves or others. The Space Program allows people to take risks in a project where they will be serving humanity.

It would be absurd to hold that this should not be permitted - that risks voluntarily taken in an activity that serves humanity must not be allowed - while others are still granted the liberty to take risks for reasons as trivial as entertainment.

It would be ironic, in fact, if, in the name of safety, we decide to prohibit people from doing thta which might well be necessary to save all of human kind.

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