The history of exploration of new lands, science and technologies has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Similarly, the history of settlement of new territory is a bloody one, with great risk to the settlers. Had they not taken those risks, we might still be in the trees in Africa, and unable to write books like this on computers. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the harshest frontier ever, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death of the humans carrying them out.
For decades since the end of Apollo, human spaceflight has been very expensive (about a billion dollars per ticket) and relatively rare (about 500 people total, with a death rate of about 4%), largely because of this risk aversion on the part of the federal government, whether driven by a changed American culture itself, or grandstanding politicians. From the Space Shuttle, to the International Space Station, the new commercial crew program to deliver astronauts to it, and the regulatory approach for commercial spaceflight providers, our approach to safety has been fundamentally irrational, expensive and even dangerous, while generating minimal accomplishment for maximal cost.
The implicit assignment of an infinite value to the life of a space farer, as has been the apparent and perhaps-unique default for decades, will inevitably result in a gross misallocation of resources and, paradoxically, actually increase the individual risk of death or injury. It is also a signal, regardless of how much money we spend on them, of how utterly unimportant and valueless we as a society believe that space accomplishments are, that we are unwilling to risk human life on them, compared to any other human endeavor such as commerce, mining, farming, construction, transport or even adventure seeking. If we are to open up space to humanity, this attitude must change. Our goal must be not to maximize safety, but rather to maximize space activity, and to accept and recognize that in doing so it is inevitable that human lives will be lost, as is the case in any other worthwhile (and even worthless) human activity. We must be more accepting of the possibility that people will be injured or killed in space, whether for government missions, or for private endeavors, and be much bolder in our goals. This is not to encourage recklessness, but to simply be more rational in our approach.
With regard to commercial space, this implies that the Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration should delay, perhaps indefinitely, any attempt to regulate the commercial spaceflight industry with regard to passenger safety, and allow lessons to be learned over time that can be incorporated in such regulations when it becomes appropriate to introduce them. When it does so, the agency must assign a value to the life of a spaceflight participant, so that it can properly determine whether or not a proposed rule is cost effective. It must also allow individuals to participate on an informed basis, regardless of risk level.
Similarly, for NASA, the implications of this are that the agency must stop using the words “safe” and “unsafe” as though they are binary conditions rather than a continuum, and that it must assign a value to the life of an astronaut (perhaps as a function of the mission to be performed) so that it can rationally allocate the resources necessary to properly and reasonably minimize the probability of losing it.
For Congress, it means that we have to, for the first time in decades, have a serious discussion about what we are trying to accomplish in space with regard to human spaceflight, and what we’re willing to spend, both in taxpayer dollars and human life, to do so. And for the media, it means that any time a Congressperson says that “safety is paramount,” it should be reported what a completely irrational and counterproductive statement this is if we are to accomplish our national space goals.