Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Apollo: The Risk of human Life

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, I am writing a series of posts on space policy.

In my previous post I discussed the “human versus machine” debate governing the question of whether humans should go into space or whether exploration should be limited to machines.

One of the points in this debate is that exploring space is dangerous. People might die. Whereas, if we send machines, we do not need to risk the possibility of the loss of human life in space.

To speak bluntly, that is not a legitimate concern.

If we put too much effort into preventing the loss of human life, we will end up prohibiting people from living.

There are people who value adventure – particularly when adventure has a purpose or a point. When other people prohibit these individuals from risking their own lives, they are not doing these people any favors. In fact, they are forcing a different kind of death on these people – the death that they find in a safe, secure and tranquil existence.

One of the reasons that space exploration needs to be taken out of NASA’s hands is that NASA is too concerned with saving lives (or preventing death). Space exploration is not yet ready for those who are afraid to die. It is a dangerous frontier, fit only for a different sort of person who likes to live on the edge. These are people who, if thy die, at least have had the pleasure of having truly lived.

One of the reasons that NASA should not be involved in snding people back to the moon is because of the inflated costs of a NASA mission. They will go to great expense to keep the astronauts safe. However, if some astronauts should die, they will mothball the whole project for three years while they conduct an investigation on what went wrong.

NASA should simply state, “We’ll give $10 billion to any organization that sends a person to Moon, keeps him there for 6 months, and returns him safely to Earth. Then, NASA should stand back and wait for the job to get done. If some adventurer gets himself killed in the attempt, let the survivors decide how much effort they want to put in to discovering what happened. And let the race go to the bold.

NASA, in this way, does not pay for failures.

In saying this, the government still has a duty to keep other people safe. These adventure companies are not going to b given an immunity to cause harm to others. Governments have a legitimate duty to prevent them from launching a rocket that might crash into downtown Houston or fries the crowd that showed up to watch the launch. But let these people take whatever risks they are willing to take with their own lives.

Of course, the same is true even if the payload at the top of the rocket is a robot. In other words, this requirement is not a point in favor of machines over humans. It is a point that applies equally regardless of whether the payload is machine or human.

It is no virtue that the use of machines in space exploration reduces the risk of human life. Not so long as there are people willing to take the risk. People who buy into this argument are not providing potential astronauts with a potential benefit. They are imposing on potential astronauts a tremendous cost. They are potentially depriving potential astronauts of something so valuable that the potential astronaut would risk his or her very life to obtain – participation in a great adventure.

It is not a virtue to deprive people of something so valuable. It is a vice to force people to endure such a loss unless one has very good reason to do so.

In this light, Apollo is a poor instrument to use in the human exploration of space. It is far better to give the job to those who are (more) willing to take the types of risks that this type of project requires.


Anonymous said...

I feel you are discounting the very real economic reasons a mission might be "mothballed" after the death of an adventure-seeking astronaut. The cost of educating and training an astronaut capable enough to head a space exploration mission is pretty high, not to mention the scarcity of truly qualified candidates, mentally and physically. Of course politics play a part as well, as the public has been pretty well conditioned (with some good reasons) to be mortified and outraged at any loss of human life, and NASA would inevitably be faced with an "our tax dollars are funding murder" outcry.
Not that any of this is an argument against privately-funded space exploration, which I ardently favor. I just don't want to write it off as a stubborn and irrational refusal to indulge people in what may well be fulfilling, risk-seeking behavior. I also would like to think, for the purposes of good science being done, that competence and skill continue to rate as highly in the private sector as does the willingness to die on Mars.

Jamie said...

All the blame for NASA's severe aversion to risk should not be lumped on NASA's shoulders. NASA operates in an environment today where the public does not accept their failures. NASA is under constant scrutiny by politicians looking to call it a waste of money. The public seems to believe that space exploration is routine now, and any failure is seen as an outrage to be severely punished and condemned, rather than the inevitable consequence of engaging in a business with high risks.

It is my personal opinion that if NASA paid other companies to send people to the moon, NASA would STILL be lambasted when catastrophes occurred. Calls would still go out to spend the money on "more important things" after each failure.

NASA could do its job better if the public could be educated on the risks and rewards of space exploration. As long as the public and congress refuse to accept the realities of risk, NASA will continue to respond by being extremely risk averse. It is a public institution after all, and its culture is driven by the public that supports (or doesn't support) it.