Wed, 27 Aug 2003

The Space Shuttle

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board results are in. Predictably there is great gnashing and wailing about how NASA has failed the astronauts and failed the country in providing inadequate safety.

They are wrong

We are in fact providing too much safety -- way too much safety -- to astronauts.

On the face of it, that sounds like a horrific thing to say. "We should be killing more astronauts?????" Can I possibly be serious? Yes, I'm serious. Consider all the other explorations that the human race has engaged in. People died by the boatload. Often there was no corpse, no last words, no black box to let us know what happened. They just disappeared.

Yet people continued to explore. People continue to explore today, and they continue to die today. Fully one quarter of the people who make it to the top of Everest die on the way back down. Everyone who goes up Everest knows this, and yet they go anyway.

We are buying too much safety for our astronauts. With a given space exploration budget, we could run many more flights with a great decrease in safety, or we could run fewer flights with greater safety. The CAIB says that we need greater safety. This translates into, realistically, fewer astronauts. I say that we need less safety. There is considerable unmet market demand for people to go into outer space. Many more people want to be astronauts than NASA's budget can lift. They could pay a huge amount of money and get NASA-like safety from the Russians, as a couple of people have done. Or they could pay with a risk of dying.

There is a way, of course, to get more flights with more safety, by simply increasing NASA's budget. Unfortunately, this isn't likely to happen. Ever since the moon shots in the early 70's, NASA's budget has been shrinking. Expecting taxpayers to pay more is just not going to happen.

So, are we better off with fewer safer flights or more unsafer flights? I think very much the latter, but you can make up your own mind. Would you like to fly to the moon? What's it worth to you? What's it worth to you to get to the top of Everest? Is it worth your life? Can we ask of anything less for the moon?

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