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NASA Space Politics Science

Risk Aversion At Odds With Manned Space Exploration 371

Posted by kdawson
from the what-price-safety dept.
Several readers including tyghe!! sent in a Popular Mechanics piece analyzing the Augustine Commission's recommendations and NASA itself in terms of a persistent bias towards risk aversion, and arguing that such a bias is fundamentally incompatible with the mission of opening a new frontier. "Rand Simberg, a former aerospace engineer finds the report a little too innocuous. In this analysis, Simberg asks, what happens when we take the risk out of space travel? ... Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan said a few years ago that if we're not killing people, we're not pushing hard enough. That might sound harsh to people outside the aerospace community but, as Rutan knows, test pilots and astronauts are a breed of people that willingly accepts certain risk in order to be part of great endeavors. They're volunteers and they know what they're getting into."
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Risk Aversion At Odds With Manned Space Exploration

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  • Misses the point (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:43AM (#29389227)

    Missing the point.

    NASA execs used to claim the chances of a bad Shuttle accident were 1 in 10,000.

    That's obviously crazy-- you'd have to shoot one up every day for 30 years to get even an unreliable estimate of that level of risk.

    Feynman asked around, and the actual engineers estimated 1 in 100 to 1 in 200.

    So a better question is, do the astronauts have a right to hear the CORRECT figures, not the wild wishful-thinking executive estimates?

    • Re:Misses the point (Score:5, Informative)

      by 2.7182 (819680) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:46AM (#29389259)
      If you read Feynman's book he actually interviewed on exec. or engineer at NASA who said the chances of catastrophic failure were 1 in 100,000. Feynman pointed out that that this was like flying the space shuttle every day for 300 years without an accident.
      • Re:Misses the point (Score:4, Informative)

        by PIBM (588930) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:50AM (#29389315) Homepage

        Well, you missed the small text at the bottom of the page that said "*** per component" !

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by FleaPlus (6935)

          Well, you missed the small text at the bottom of the page that said "*** per component" !

          It's also worth noting that this sort of "component-based" risk assessment, where you determine the chance of failure based on the known probabilities of particular components failing, only predicts a tiny percentage of launch failures. The vast majority of launch failures are due to components failing in ways that weren't anticipated and/or flaws in the overall design. Rockets don't typically fail in the ways you expect them to.

          Jeff Greason stated this rather elegantly during one of the Augustine Committee

      • >>>Feynman pointed out that that this was like flying the space shuttle every day for 300 years without an accident.

        That's 1 out of 300*365 days. In reality NASA had 2 blowups in 1300 days of flight. So 1 in 650 odds of catastrophic failure. I'd say the engineers doing the estimating are not doing a proper job, but then I've always thought risk analysis was more voodoo than reality (like counting how many angels dance on the head of a pin).

        • by StevePole (1450559) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:00PM (#29390145)
          The fact that the shuttle has been up for 1300 days is kind of irrelevant, I'm sure it's not much of a consolation to the Columbia astronauts that there was no failure in the first 15 days of their mission! The relevant statistic is failures per mission, that sits at about 1 in 65 (131 flights, 2 failure http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_program [wikipedia.org]).
        • by digitig (1056110) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:02PM (#29390173)

          >>>Feynman pointed out that that this was like flying the space shuttle every day for 300 years without an accident.

          That's 1 out of 300*365 days. In reality NASA had 2 blowups in 1300 days of flight. So 1 in 650 odds of catastrophic failure.

          Worse than that, I think -- doing the Chi-square test (single tail lower bound, time-terminated test) I make it about 1 in 420 days (60% confidence), 1 in 210 days (95% confidence). Dividing time by failures is significantly over-optimistic when the number of failures is low. The usual rule of thumb if you don't have a spreadsheet or Chi-square tables to hand is to divide by the number of failures plus 1, which in this case gives about 1 in 430, somewhere near the 60% confidence point. That avoids claiming infinite reliability if you have zero failures, when all it really means is that the test hasn't run for long enough to give useful results.

    • Re:Misses the point (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Ukab the Great (87152) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:50AM (#29389313)

      According to this article [reason.com] your lifetime chance of dying in a car crash is 1 in 83.

      Per-person odds, I'd take a one-time shuttle ride over a lifetime of driving.

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:05AM (#29389503) Journal

      So a better question is, do the astronauts have a right to hear the CORRECT figures, not the wild wishful-thinking executive estimates?

      What makes you think they aren't aware of the true risks of what's involved? Who else would be in a better position to know them? I've always assumed the drivel that comes out of the NASA execs is intended for public consumption. The astronauts themselves are aware of what they are getting into.

      • >>>I've always assumed the drivel that comes out of the NASA execs is intended for public consumption

        It's never a good idea to lie to your boss (the people). They might catch you in the lie, and then you've lost their trust. Or worse - they might revolt.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by zippthorne (748122)

        I don't think they are. The odds come out to ~1 in 50 flights having a fatal accident. Now, even with columbia, that makes the Shuttle the safest spacecraft ever, but that's still pretty crappy. Now, the reason I think they're getting smoke blown up their arses about the shuttle specifically is that some of them have families.

        1 in 50 is an insane risk for someone with kids to come home to. No sane parent would take those odds. And definitely no one would compound the risk by repeatedly casting the die.

        • by thesandtiger (819476) on Friday September 11, 2009 @01:48PM (#29391403)

          I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that trained astronauts with advanced degrees in usually scientific fields are probably about as capable of figuring out the statistical chances of a fatal mission as people on slashdot are.

          Call me crazy, but I'm assuming that NASA isn't lobotomizing their astronauts.

          People take risks because to them, the payout for the risk is greater than the potential downside. For astronauts, obviously, the benefits of doing missions are greater than the pitfalls of dying on missions. You can doubt their wisdom in making those choices, but I think you're being a bit absurd if you think they aren't aware of or capable of figuring out the numbers.

      • The astronauts are experts in 1) piloting the spacecraft, or 2) tending to the payload ("mission specialists"). I guarantee that (probably with rare exceptions) they do not have the skills to do the kind of failure analysis that would be required to really understand the risks involved. You would need significant background in aerospace and safety engineering to be able to conduct such a thing, and most of these folks are not. And my impression is that NASA has not done such a great job of doing this analys
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Brett Buck (811747)

        Of course they are aware of the risks, and I can assure you, they *don't care*. I am sure they would object to any specific item that was clearly dangerous, but as an overall statistical risk, it's not even on their minds. There were *plenty* of volunteers to launch critical national payloads right after the Challenger incident.

                Brett

    • Re:Misses the point (Score:4, Interesting)

      by orthancstone (665890) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:09AM (#29389537)

      So a better question is, do the astronauts have a right to hear the CORRECT figures, not the wild wishful-thinking executive estimates?

      Do you really think the original badasses who fought hard to be a part of the program were concerned with the executive estimates?

      THAT statement is a perfect example of the difference between now and then. They knew damn well that risk was a major part of it; they flew in the face of it anyway. Today, we care more about someone's calculated "risk aversion" numbers than we do about staring in the face of a challenge, albeit it risky, and going for it. If someone's willing to risk it all to meet the challenge, we don't need some desk jockey's numbers stopping him or her.

      • Re:Misses the point (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:44AM (#29389935) Homepage Journal

        People need to stop and think a little. Back in the 1400's and 1500's when people were exploring the world, who went out? Was it the candy asses? Did the mama's boys go forth? The fruit cakes who dressed up as dandies to hang around a court yard in some dank castle? Of course not.

        I can write paragraphs badmouthing old Chris Columbus, and the conquistadors who put much of Latin America to the torch, raping, murdering, and plundering. Paragraphs? Hell, I could write books! But, despite that, they were badass mofos. Yeah, they had a lot of luck on their side, not to mention some slightly advanced technology, germ warfare was on their side, and they had better warfare strategies and tactics. But, they were badasses, willing to put their lives on the line.

        The same goes for all the other settlers who came to the new world. Candy asses and sissies who counted the risk assessment beans stayed at home, or at least waited many years for the real bad asses to create a safe place for them.

        Today? Phhht.

        I put my faith in SpaceX and places like China to put man into space. The US government has to many bean counters who won't risk losing a few beans.

        I've said it before, I'll repeat it here. I'll haul my ass up onto that rocket making a one-way trip to Mars. Light that big bastard off, and send me on my way. You would do better to send a younger man - but if you can't find one with the balls to go, I'm ready. Just send the equipment and supplies necessary for the job, and I'll put in a few years work, trying to find a reason that convinces the candy asses that it is worth sending a colony to Mars.

        Don't worry about any silly assed funeral when I finally croak - when the time comes, I'll drop my drawers and lie face down in plain site of the earth. Those who count will remember me - and the rest can kiss my ass.

        • Re:Misses the point (Score:5, Interesting)

          by commodore64_love (1445365) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:54AM (#29390071) Journal

          >>>The US government has to many bean counters who won't risk losing a few beans.

          And yet they spend ~2000 billion on bank bailouts, corporate bailouts, and "stimulus" bills without even reading the fucking laws. I thought it was funny when Conyers said, "People keep saying read the bill. Have you seen the bill? It's over 1000 pages long and requires two lawyers sitting by my side to explain what it means! We don't have time to read the bill. We need to get it passed."

          So they just vote "aye" and hope for the best. I'm sure if they can spend all that, without even knowing what they are spending it on, they can spare 0.1 billion for NASA each year.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by dsanfte (443781)

            It's not funny, it's ironic.

            If your representatives don't understand what they're passing, they're no longer in control. Those two lawyers, and whoever pays them, are.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Tablizer (95088)

          I'll haul my ass up onto that rocket making a one-way trip to Mars...Don't worry about any silly assed funeral when I finally croak - when the time comes, I'll drop my drawers and lie face down in plain site of the earth.

          You'll be known as the "3rd Moon of Mars".
               

        • by westlake (615356) on Friday September 11, 2009 @01:39PM (#29391279)

          The fruit cakes who dressed up as dandies to hang around a court yard in some dank castle? Of course not

          It was the disinherited - the landless - the second and third sons of the nobility - who ventured out.

          The eldest son would have been nailed to the floor if he tried.

          The Admiral of the Ocean Sea intended to set up shop somewhere off the Chinese coast and become the funnel for all trade with the West.

          The conquisitor was going for the gold.

          In 1624 Captain John Smith published a bill of particulars - a shopping list for the prospective colonist. It makes interesting reading:

          John Smith's Bill: Then & Now [americanheritage.com]

          Capt. Smith was at heart a bean counter and his profession, survival:

          At one point, when Newport returned a second time with seventy settlers, among them a perfumer and six tailors, Smith, never one to keep his opinions to himself, penned a Rude Reply to his London superiors:


          "When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have. For except we be able to lodge and feed them, the most will [be lost therough] want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything."

          Was John Smith a Liar? [americanheritage.com]

    • Even if they made (eg.) a "one way" trip to Mars you'd have people queuing around the block to sign up.

      I'd go.

    • So a better question is, do the astronauts have a right to hear the CORRECT figures, not the wild wishful-thinking executive estimates?

      If it's not EXPLICITLY stated in the US Constitution then they don't; and it is TYRANNICAL for any government to force anyone facing extreme danger to be properly informed of that fact! America isn't a COMMUNIST country, at least not yet.

      • >>>If it's not EXPLICITLY stated in the US Constitution then they don't;

        Actually the U.S. Constitution is quite clear - the power to spend money on space launches belongs to the 50 State governments. Just like how the EU is not empowered to do launches, but France, the UK, and so on are.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ultranova (717540)

          Actually the U.S. Constitution is quite clear - the power to spend money on space launches belongs to the 50 State governments.

          Actually, since space flight is essential for defence (spy satellites), general welfare (weather satellites) and interstate commerce (communication satellites), it is quite clearly within the power and duty of Federal government to spend money on.

          • by commodore64_love (1445365) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:34PM (#29390545) Journal

            >>>since space flight is essential for defence (spy satellites) and interstate commerce (communication satellites)

            Second point: Congress *regulates* interstate commerce; it does not participate. Else it would be able to kill-off Ford, Microsoft, and Panasonic, and build cars, computers, and TVs directly. The U.S. has not been granted that power to DO interstate commerce - only to regulate it. ----- First point on defense: Fair enough. But how does that justify sending shuttles up in space to study how plants grow? That is not constitutional. Instead of NASA's toys, we should simply have the Army launching non-manned rockets to position the satellites.

            >>>general welfare

            That's only the first half of the sentence. You need to read the WHOLE sentence. To quote the Author of the Constitution James Madison - "For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity." (Federalist 41)

            He further clarifies: "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions." (James Madison, Letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792)

            And finally if you're still confused, just read the Supreme Law for yourself, which makes clear most powers belong to the State governments, not Congress: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

            Operationally the United States is like the European Union:
            Most of the power is still held by individual state governments.

    • by furby076 (1461805)
      The research is sketchy in this article. Many people would take the risk in going - but most people are not qualified. You just don't send anyone (due to cost, resources, etc) you send out people who can offer something. Would I go? Hell yea. What could I offer? Maybe some leadership, a joke or two, maybe some muscle if they need it. Other then that - i have no flight training, scientific skill at that level, medical training...wait wait - once they implement kitchens I am a damn good cook...but until th
  • by RogueWarrior65 (678876) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:45AM (#29389249)

    IMHO, a big reason why NASA spends so much time on risk aversion is the fickle, uneducated, uninformed and misinformed nature of who they get their funding from aka Congress. I offer into evidence the fact that McGovern wanted desperately to kill off Apollo after the Apollo 1 fire. Traditional market-based sources of funding can evaporate after a major disaster but there will always be people who believe in the mission statement and they don't change with the political winds.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by m0s3m8n (1335861)
      I think it was Walter Mondale, but nonetheless, you are absolutely correct.
    • by Zantac69 (1331461) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:05AM (#29389505) Journal
      Spot on - but you are forgetting the other "fickle, uneducated, uninformed and misinformed" gorilla in the room - and that is the American public. If you look back at ANYTHING in the past that cost a lot of lives - it would never have happened if the American public was full "informed" as to the real cost of lives. To John/Jane Q Public, lives should only be risked if John/Jane's arses are on the line - maintaining the status quo but never for advancement.

      Space exploration and innovation is something that is far too important to be left in the hands of the "American public" or Congress.
      • by hansoloaf (668609)
        Believe it or not I think the public is fine with space exploration and the risks involved.
        It's the bullshit media that likes to build up the drama and dangers of space travel in order to sell.
        This leads the political establishment to react thinking they need to look good in having silly hearings, pushing for this and that.
        Thus the NASA becomes nervous and more risk averse.
        Not that I am putting the blame on the media alone just that they are a big part of this and the lack of spine among Congress
      • by Tablizer (95088) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:03PM (#29390177) Homepage Journal

        but you are forgetting the other "fickle, uneducated, uninformed and misinformed" gorilla in the room - and that is the American public.

        But this gets back to the "purpose" of manned missions. If manned missions are merely a PR stunt or a prestige tool, then dead astronauts are not going to help that cause. Remote robots are a safer and cheaper way to do science. I don't accept the argument that you need an on-site human to spot rocks. Until the rocks are examined by lab equipment, nobody knows whats really in them anyhow.

        I propose that the primary goal be to learn[1] about space colonization, and a perm moon-base is a good place to start. They would be space pioneers, and everyone knows pioneers risk arrows in their backs. This is a role Americans can relate to and would accept risk for because our ancestors faced the same situation. (Even "Native Americans" made a risky migration out of Asia. There are no true "Native Americans".)

        [1] We are a long way off from self-sufficient colonies, but you have to start somewhere.

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:30PM (#29390495) Journal
        We just need to find a way of doing space exploration with people that the public considers to be invisible and largely disposable. As long as the lives are those of America's True Heroes(tm), and are being lost on national TV, public risk sensitivity will be incredibly high. Probably higher than that of the people you could get to do the actual risking.

        If we could find a way to make space exploration more like meatpacking, with lots of undocumented immigrants toiling in danger and obscurity, public acceptance of risk would go right back up.

        There's a certain bitter irony, actually. The public is fairly intolerant of risk-seeking behaviors among consenting adults with access to information and enough other choices available to make their behavior truly "voluntary"; but generally has a high tolerance for risks taken by ill-informed people under economic pressure.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Canazza (1428553)

      The difference between then and now is that the political climate was one of "We must beat the Russians at all costs" - as such alot of people got to play with the frontiers of knowledge. We're at a point in history where international struggles don't contribute much to the space programme. Business does. We're in a recession, and the space programme is at the mercy of budget cuts. There is more than one dissenting voice in congress now.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        We're in a recession, and the space programme is at the mercy of budget cuts.

        Which is sad because, in the long run, the technology developed from space exploration would be a big boon to the economy. Just think of all the technologies that would have to be developed, or at least further developed, for a Mars mission.

    • Traditional market-based sources of funding can evaporate after a major disaster but there will always be people who believe in the mission statement and they don't change with the political winds.

      Name me one company, just one, that has provided a significant and continuous source of funding for a major project that it believed in, even when the going got tough.

      Just one.

      • Apple Computer.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Shakrai (717556)

        Westinghouse didn't waver when Edison was waging his FUD and lobbying campaign against them. The railroad industry was plagued with disasters and bad press for many years but kept building out their infrastructure and are still around today. The White Star line didn't stop building ships after the Titanic sunk.

        There's three examples right off the top of my head. I'm sure others can think of more.

  • It's not just NASA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by russotto (537200) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:47AM (#29389275) Journal

    American society is risk averse to pathological levels in general.

    • I wonder (Score:3, Insightful)

      by copponex (13876)

      I wonder if that's because it's run by lawyers, bankers, and insurance companies?

      On an even deeper philosophical level, when you are only encouraged to measure success by wealth, I don't think anyone should be surprised at the shortsighted nature of American innovation at the moment. Many hard problems are not profitable to solve, so all of our capital is flooding into financial services and marketing. I don't imagine we can make a space program out of that.

      • by Shakrai (717556)

        Many hard problems are not profitable to solve, so all of our capital is flooding into financial services and marketing.

        So make them profitable to solve. Want to help solve climate change? Get rid of the regulatory/legal processes that give an inordinate amount of power to the NIMBY/BANANA crowd. Why should I invest my capital in wind farms or a nuclear power plant when a handful of loud assholes can tie me up in court for years before I even get to break ground? Everybody wants green energy but nobody wants to look at a wind farm or cooling tower. Everybody wants good wireless service but nobody wants to look at a cell

        • Re:I wonder (Score:5, Insightful)

          by copponex (13876) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:29PM (#29390485) Homepage

          You've got it backwards.

          Mass transit isn't profitable because it's efficient. Solar power isn't profitable because coal isn't properly taxed for the amount of damage it does to the ecosystem, or when a slurry wall fails and kills a few hundred people directly. Batteries are expensive because the cost of maintaining hegemony in the Middle East is hidden in our defense budget, and not tacked on to the price of a gallon of gas.

          There are many things that the market is piss poor at valuing. There are many services better considered as infrastructure than as a luxury, like transportation, health care, electricity, and telecommunications. That's why when you look across the world, large state sectors dominate economically. They have spread out the cost and benefits of this infrastructure, and raised the standard of living for everyone. Weak states, where the market has no boundaries, perform very poorly in comparison. They are subject to more devastating economic cycles, corruption, monopoly practices, and so on.

          There is no need to engage in philosophical debates. You can simply look at the economic history of the last thirty years, and compare America to Canada, England, France, and Germany. America now has the highest unemployment, worst income inequality, pays the most portion for basic services, transportation, health care, and education. Our savings have evaporated. The dollar only holds value as far as China is willing to lend us money. We have no way to create things that other people want to buy because we don't have a manufacturing sector. The leftover bits of prosperity from the postwar period will not last forever.

          This is not progress. In fact, the cost of doing business has gone up so much that there is now "political support" - meaning, some corporate support - for health care reform after 30 years of majority support for a single payer system. A market, properly calibrated by regulation, can do amazing things when it increases competition. Remove the corrective effects of good governance, and it turns into a nightmare.

    • Have you been on YouTube lately? American's are anything but risk averse (at least as individuals).

      Example One. [youtube.com]
      Example Two. [youtube.com]
      Example Three. [youtube.com]

      I could find more examples, but I don't have time to find them for you. Needless to say there are a lot of Americans that aren't risk averse. Wait what am I saying, there are just a lot of stupid people who don't realize how dangerous the things they are doing really are.
  • Life is terminal (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NoYob (1630681) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:48AM (#29389277)
    That might sound harsh to people outside the aerospace community but, as Rutan knows, test pilots and astronauts are a breed of people that willingly accepts certain risk in order to be part of great endeavors.

    After reading about some of those guys, if you made the program too safe, they'd take up free climbing or something else to get the rush. The possibility of dying early gives it that rush.

    We're such a death phobic society - no wonder terrorists can just flinch and send us into girly girl panics.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      We're such a death phobic society - no wonder terrorists can just flinch and send us into girly girl panics

      It didn't use to be that way. I'm trying to put my finger on when this happened -- but once you almost die in an auto wreck, you're going to wear your seat belt. I'm guessing it happened with 9-11 and the government/media reaction. The terrorists won.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Nadaka (224565)

        If you almost die in an auto wreck, you are going to wear your safety belt.

        What happened with 9-11 is more like getting a bad concussion in an auto wreck and then never driving or riding in a car again, and blowing up the dealership that sold you the car.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Enigma2175 (179646)

          If you almost die in an auto wreck, you are going to wear your safety belt.

          What happened with 9-11 is more like getting a bad concussion in an auto wreck and then never driving or riding in a car again, and blowing up the dealership that sold you the car.

          Don't forget blowing up a nearby dealership that had nothing to do with your car wreck, but had dealings with your daddy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Kjella (173770)

      I'd say it's a perfectly natural reaction to the way society has evolved. We are continuously improving medicine and safety so that less and less people die early of injury and illness. The average life expectancy has gone somewhat up too, but the outliers have gotten a lot smaller. If you survive your first year there's a 90% probability you'll be 55+ years old and 70% probability of becoming 70+ and that is total figures including all Darwin award winners, suicides, drug overdoses and whatnot. Normal heal

  • Burt is right (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Cornwallis (1188489) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:49AM (#29389309)

    Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan said a few years ago that if we're not killing people, we're not pushing hard enough.

    Would that we could apply this to Democrats and Republicans.

  • Thankfully... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    ... China and India will do some pretty awesome things in the next couple of decades, by using the go go go mentality we had in the 60s.

    Hopefully, getting passed in current race will take us back to that attitude.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Yvan256 (722131)

      It's already happening, the same way it went with GM, Ford and Chrysler vs Honda, Toyota, Nissan.

      You have to be pro-active with these things. If you're only reactive then it's already too late and the curve just to catch up to your competition is even harder, makes it look even more impossible, making you give up more easily.

  • We are killing people, and we aren't trying hard enough.
  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Friday September 11, 2009 @10:55AM (#29389369) Homepage

    Attributed to an old test pilot: "Come on. My job is to get in an airplane that's never flown before, of a design that's never flown before, usually with lots of parts that've never been used in an airplane before, and go up and find out what it's performance limits are, usually by going past them. This is not an inherently safe activity.". I think most astronauts would agree with that sentiment. They know it's a risky activity, and they're there because they want to be there doing this strongly enough to outweigh the inherent risks. They'd probably rather not take stupid and unnecessary risks, but if it's a choice between taking the risks and never seeing space, well, to quote from Leslie Fish, "And before you take my dream / I will see you in Hell.".

    • by idontgno (624372)

      Another piece of related gallows humor: "Never forget that your [spacecraft]* was manufactured by the lowest bidder."

      *Original version, military-oriented, used "weapon" in this spot. For test pilots, many of whom were military and test-flying warplanes, this is a perfect 100% correlation.

      Discovering the unknown, whether the unknown flight characteristics of a new prototype airplane or the unknown "out there" in space (or even across an uncharted ocean, 500 years ago) is a risky proposition.

      The situation we

    • Exactly. When the Challenger blew up, I asked a Air Force friend of mine if they asked him to fly in the next one, would he go, and his reply was, "In a heartbeat. It's a chance to go to space."

      Besides, adrenalin is fun stuff.
  • If the benefits from your particular mission are small - maybe negligible, such as simply a P.R. exercise, or to fulfill some political posturing, then it's right that people's lives should not be put at risk. However, if the rewards are great - such as diverting a killer asteroid, then the amount of "acceptable" (that's to the people on the mission, not those who stand to benefit) risk is far greater - and the people who undertake them or volunteer should be considered heroes.

    What NASA trying to reduce t

    • by Nadaka (224565)

      NASA has been handed a nickle and has been asked to build a castle. NASA has not made any significant contributions since Apollo because they have been on an ever tightening budget with ever expanding demand for action. Its amazing that they have managed to hold on for this long. Give them a reasonable budget (50 to 100 billion/year) and we would have a permanent moon/mars colonies, the ability to deflect potentially killer NEOs such as Apophis (1/45000 chance of impact in 2036 with an impact of almost 900

  • How soon we forget (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SEWilco (27983) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:12AM (#29389561) Journal
    Those NASA executives have forgotten how they got on this continent. Their ancestors walked around glaciers or risked their lives on ships to get here. Then they had to find ways to stay alive long enough to have children. Then their children went to the Wal-Mart and stocked up on microwave popcorn.
    • by Ozric (30691)

      It's a dangerous business stepping out your door........
      I too will guarantee that for everyone living and reading this right now, death is a 100% certainty.
      Get over it, no pain no gain.

    • by bazorg (911295)
      Well actually, the King of Portugal thought that finding a trade route to India by sailing West was a stupid and dangerous idea and he refused to commission that adventure. Columbus went to Spain and got the funding he needed. So let NASA work for other countries and new Jamaicas may be found (even if they're looking for India).
  • by dm513 (1377097) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:13AM (#29389569)
    If manned space exploration is too dangerous...What about all the spectator sports and events that risk human life for no reward other than the thrill?...and maybe a lot of money. NASCAR racing is incredibly dangerous...Skydiving is dangerous...What about "the running of the bulls?"...People get killed playing baseball!...And none of the people taking these risks is getting us any closer to the moon or any other celestial destination... Men and women climb mountains and dive deep into the seas looking for adventure...Why then is manned space exploration too dangerous? It is expensive and dangerous going somewhere faraway in a new way first...No matter whether it's on the Earth or in the sky...The explorers who "found" the new world knew this...How now can it be so hard for us to accept?
  • Putting astronauts in danger is not the only risk which we fearfully avoid. There is very little willingness to pour resources into cutting edge technologies. New technologies could fail, or they could revolutionize space travel, but we won't know if we're not willing to explore the possibilities. Rather than exploring something like nuclear propulsion or a launch loop, we spend billions developing another chemical rocket platform, and in some respects taking a step back from the abilities of the Space Shut

  • by yogibaer (757010) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:20AM (#29389645)
    I find it most astounding that once it comes to manned space missions governments start whining about the risk for life and limb of the volunteers and the enormous costs involved. Whereas the same governments have no problems whatsoever to put close to half a million citizens at risk in various wars around the globe (remind me please, what is the purpose of the Iraq War again?) The campaign in Iraq alone would have paid for missions to moon and mars and back again including a hot spa and an acre of green grass for the various habitats. Add to that all the money that is poured in smart weaponry and the next best way to blast a target from (or in) orbit and a sizable population could live on Mars before the century is over. Somehow the world is upside down and we have totally lost our bearings. Let the terrorists rot in the holes they dug for themselves and lets do something useful for a change. Heal the planet, feed the people, solve the energy problem and lets colonize our own back yard. That should keep us happily occupied for the next 200 years. OUR future is out there not that of bunch of tin cans with shiny wheels and solar panels.
    • The thing about taking funding from the people who build smart bombs, tanks, and ballistic missiles, is they have all the bombs, tanks, and missiles.
    • because we certainly don't fight to win. We take incredible precaution to not harm the "civilians" and wonder why there never seems to and end to the war or an end to the other sides ability to recruit.

      We have become such a risk averse culture in the West that we could not fight World War ][ all over again because too many would be screaming about killing non-direct combatants. You don't win a war by being nice. You win in by breaking the spirit of the opponent and their support mechanism. Its mean, its

  • Exactly (Score:5, Funny)

    by lymond01 (314120) on Friday September 11, 2009 @11:22AM (#29389661)

    My half elven paladin has exactly the same thinking as an astronaut. He knows the risks. He knows that no matter how many elixirs of healing he brings, no matter whether his friend Drugar the Troll Barbarian is sober or not, things might go south. You think you're raiding an underground goblin camp, you open that door and BAM! Red frickin' dragon. Not much you can do about a red dragon at close range except poor some good ol' A1 steak sauce on yourself to make a worthwhile meal.

    Sometimes you rummage around in your sack for treasure and it turns out to be a bag of devouring. That's all I'm sayin'.

  • Speaking as a member of the Cold Y generation, I believe a lot of the decline of the space program has to do with the attitude of the American public in general. I think our government, our military, and NASA would cheerfully push the envelope if they could, but as a number of different posters have pointed out previously in this thread, the biggest obstacle is us as a people. Even though we all benefit now from technologies developed then, space travel still means completely nothing to the average American
  • I'd ride a spacecraft with a 20% chance of catastrophic failure if I could get an in-person view of Valles Marineris. No doubt about it. But to fly into low earth orbit so that I can press a button which starts an automated experiment....it better be close to 747-level reliability.
  • It's most of society now. People are so wrapped up in a single death that they make things worse for everyone. Death happens, you cant stop it forever.

    A few years ago in WWI&II casualties were in the thousands and hundreds of thousands. Now they are in the dozens yet there is more protest over them than before. Life-support for people who are already dead costs millions and consumes resources otherwise usable for those that still have a chance. Prisons are full of career criminals who are little more
  • by goffster (1104287) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:13PM (#29390307)

    "Risk Aversion" is meaningless, we all want to minimize risk.
    What you really want is accurate "Risk Assessment" so that a "good" astronaut can say
    "sorry, that's too risky for me"

    And........ Only report the successful missions, since the American public, in general,
    is incapable of wrapping their collective heads around the concept of "Risk Assessment".

  • by sean.peters (568334) on Friday September 11, 2009 @12:55PM (#29390803) Homepage

    In this analysis, Simberg asks, what happens when we take the risk out of space travel? ...

    IAASE (I am a safety engineer). This is a silly question to even ask. It's not possible to "take the risk out of space travel". It's not possible to take the risk out of anything - getting out of bed is risky (you might slip and fall) but so is staying in bed (you might get bedsores). The best we can hope for is to 1) identify the risks involved in space travel, 2) mitigate the ones we can, and then 3) decide whether the remaining risk is worth taking. And there are a whole lot of people in this thread advocating for taking these risks with other people's lives, or volunteering to take these risks themselves in spite of the fact that they don't really understand their severity or probability.

    People on slashdot need to get a realistic understanding of what we get out of space travel. The benefits consist of 1) scientific progress - which for the most part can be obtained just as successfully and more cheaply with automated systems, and 2) glory and adventure. I submit that glory and adventure in themselves are not a very good reason to get people killed, especially people who haven't been able to provide actual informed consent to the risks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by spire3661 (1038968)
      THe realistic benefit of space travel is to get our asses of this rock and establish a secondary biosphere. Our survival absolutely 100% depends on it. ITs is not a question of IF, only when. One only has to look at the moon to see the evidence staring him in the face. Take a risk assesment of NOT establising a secondary biosphere and see what numbers you come up with given the history and timeline of the planet. THe earths biosphere is probably one of the most fragile things ever to exist. THis reminds me

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