Too Few Astronauts Have Died

by tophtucker

Twenty-seven years ago yesterday, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, seventy-three seconds after takeoff. Evidence suggests that the crew quite possibly survived breakup and was alive until impact with the ocean.* NASA lead accident investigator Robert Overmyer later said, referring to Commander Dick Scobee: “Scob fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down … they were alive.”*

In his minority report appended to The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Richard Feynman argued that NASA had been fooling itself about the risks.* Management had been estimating the fatal failure rate at about 1 in 100,000, while engineers had been estimating more like 1 in 100. History suggests that the engineers were closer to correct. (The final fatal failure rate of the Shuttle program was 2 in 135.*)

“The astronauts,” Feynman wrote, “like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe? … NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”

And what are the wisest decisions? With risks revised radically upward, do we move radically toward greater caution? All else being equal, that would be a rational response. But at the same time, I fear we already have a seriously irrational risk-averseness.

I will express a distasteful opinion, which I would likely be too scared to confess if more people were listening to me:

Too few astronauts have died.

Observe that we accept very high mortality rates in war. I am not going to get into a discussion of just and unjust wars; I just mean to point out that human civilizations have long since determined that the conquest of other nations is a good worth dying for, in legions.

If that is worth sending our citizens to die for, why not the conquest of space? Is there anywhere a more threatening enemy than the engulfing vacuum, which sentences us to near-certain extinction? It is a very cold war indeed, and we are falling prey to a very serious implementation of containment.

The outrage and incredulity at any fatal accident is an artifact of a culture with the hubris to think it can afford to be comfortable. Space exploration is not something to be done at our leisure, at whatever risk tolerances we deem politically feasible.

Marshaling the resources to make a serious stab at this is incredibly hard. If not at the height of a superpower, then when? Looking around the universe, we see no evidence that anyone else has ever succeeded.* That suggests that the opportunity to try is rare and precious. It may seem to stretch into the indefinite future. But how much harder will it be to spare the resources when our cities are sinking, crops dying, population stagnating? It is cheaper now than it will ever again be. Debt, healthcare, war — these problems won’t be solved, leaving us free to tackle space, any time soon. They’ll probably get worse. And the best thing we can do for the Earth is get off of it.

There is hope on two fronts.

One: the private space sector, less burdened by politics, may be more likely to find an optimal failure rate.

Two: unmanned space exploration is becoming increasingly fruitful, and there we can evaluate optimal failure rate without particular sentimentality for the sanctity of life.

Thanks to the latter, the marginal returns to increased tolerance of risk to human life is falling dramatically. As in war, the agonizing question of how to risk life is dropping out of the equation, for better and for worse.* This question of life is emotionally provocative, but the more interesting dilemma is more general.

I doubt that the cost of failing to undertake this enterprise is being fully priced-in. It cannot be priced by empirical precedent, because this future is unprecedented; it must be priced by theoretical modeling.* That doesn’t appear to be something our free market, or indeed the free minds that compose it, are good at.

R.I.P. Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael Smith, and Dick Scobee — K.I.A.