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How Much Is an Astronaut's Life Worth? (reason.com)
370 points by johno215 on Jan 27, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 180 comments

This is about 25 years too late, but good.

The problem here is that NASA is a political agency, not a scientific one. Each year, elected politicians sit down and decide how much they're going to get.

This means the number one rule is don't make us look bad. You can't waste too much money, you can't go making a bunch of controversial statements, and good grief, whatever you do don't have astronauts getting exploded on TV.

The analogy with the mission-centric military was a good one. Unfortunately, as we involve the U.S. military in more and more missions that look highly political, we're going to end up with a badly broken military, for exactly the same reasons.

NASA should have but one mission: lower cost to orbit. If they can reach a 1000-fold reduction in cost to low-earth orbit, a lot of scientific research, exploration, and commercialization can take place.

NASA is a political organization, but that's why the manned space program exists. It long ago ceased to make sense from a cost/scientific-benefit perspective. Manned flight continues only on the argument that it excites the public and fuels interest in space.

Bearing that in mind, the entire thing is showboating on TV, and it's pretty silly to angst if over this, that, or the other bit of it is compromised by politics.

It amazes me that on a tech site you are getting downvotes for this.

Human space travel is a waste of money from a scientific standpoint. Why a libertarian magazine like reason.com supports human space travel at all is a mystery to me.

I would ask: a waste of money over what time-scale?

I agree that the ROI over the next decade or two seems low. But at some point, if we plan to ever get humans to other planets, we're going to have to do the low ROI slog of figuring out the basics. I don't think we will reach a point where getting people to other planets will suddenly become low-hanging fruit.

So I think the only real options are:

  1) do some low ROI exploratory work to enable higher ROI efforts down the road
  2) never send humans beyond earth orbit (seems short-sighted to me over a 
     century-long timeframe, but who knows)
  3) hope that somehow it will become much cheaper through windfall technology 
     developments in other fields (not impossible, but certainly not one that I 
     would bet on)

It's a waste of tax money, but there are clearly a lot of rich people who would pay for private space tourism.

Going for #3, combined with LEO manned spaceflight on a commercial basis, and then maybe a Mars or Lunar mission privately financed, would be fine with me, even if the same money in government would be more productively spent on aid to the poor or lowering taxes. Let the government spend money on purely scientific missions (with robots or telescopes), and maybe on establishing regulatory frameworks and contracts for specific amounts of space freight to cover government missions.

(If things keep going well technologically, we could have a Mars Direct mission for about 2x the cost of a series of movies about a Mars mission... at that point, it actually becomes worthwhile for private financiers to do it for the media rights.)

I think we're looking at option 3.

With advanced technology, we can modify humans to more easily survive in space. With sufficiently advanced technology, we can just upload them into robot bodies. That will make space missions as cheap as they are now, and without the risk. Because instead of sending up bags of meat that have to be protected from vacuum, radiation, freezing, boiling and dehydration, we can send up AIs or uploaded humans running on rad-hardened processors.

It goes back to the discussions about terra-forming. Is it better to adapt an entire planet (which is big, by the way) to human needs, or is it better to adapt humans to just live in that environment as-is?

Oh, and this sufficiently advanced technology gives you some other side benefits, including practical immortality, so that is worth pursuing by itself.

While I agree that 3 is the most optimal solution in the sense that "all these other problems are solved given 3", we still don't have a firm time frame on it. It could be 1 year, it could be 50 years. (I wouldn't put it at 100 or above personally, barring global catastrophe.) So we do things in parallel and hedge our bets. Could we get a self-sustaining colony on the Moon (or Mars, or somewhere else) within 50 years if we tried? I think we could. And that instantly protects modern humanity from many existential threats while we continue to work on problem #3.

Time frame is always a tough one. Let's try to bracket it with what we know, and be clear about the goal.

First, if we're talking about running an uploaded human-equivalent AI, we've got the processor power for that now, but it takes up a large server room. So I'd say we need to shrink stuff by at least 2 orders of magnitude to launch that into space. With corresponding gains in efficiency. So for that I think we're looking at 10 years at current rates of progress. Tack on another 5 for radiation hardening, because that estimate was based on commercial-grade hardware, which is almost as fragile as meat.

After you have that, it is a small matter of programming :-)

>3) hope that somehow it will become much cheaper through windfall technology developments in other fields (not impossible, but certainly not one that I would bet on)

Brain uploading. I don't know if Kurzweil's "$1000 computer by 2035" prediction is right, but we'll certainly have it by the end of the century.

Accelerando features a good exploration of this. Your interstellar spaceship is a laser-propelled computer the size of a soda can, with everyone's brains simply uploaded into it.

from a scientific standpoint

Agreed. But there are other things being looked at in space in the commercial realm (ranging from tourism to resource extraction to energy generation) that require humans.

There is also an argument for positive externalities. I don't think anyone concretely foresaw the technological developments shot off the side of the Apollo missions. That's not a sufficient justification. But if one has two nations, one pursuing manned space missions and one not, the technological developments will happen in one and not the other. A more cosmopolitan perspective would be if you had two universes, one with a species that did this and another without...

In this entire discussion I'm not bringing up national pride, either, which has real-world significance in terms of how it affects the flow of intellectual talent, i.e. the brain drain.

> Human space travel is a waste of money from a scientific standpoint.

It's hard to weigh up the relative merits of spending money on human space travel now over spending (perhaps less) money a few tens or hundred years from now to achieve the same effect.

But if mankind doesn't eventually colonise other planets then we're almost certainly going to be wiped out by a big rock hitting our planet and killing every last one of us.

By the time we spot such a killer rock it would probably be far too late to start thinking about how we might go about travelling in space. We need the ability now, just in case.

What's the point? It's not going to occur in a reasonable amount of time, and if you say, "Well, eventually it will..." then eventually everything that exists will cease to exist anyway.

Why not focus on things that are problems now?

Your argument can be further extended as "what's the point of living when eventually everything will cease to exist anyway".

But ultimately, it's these small wins along the way that help push humanity forward. I'm not going to open the "what's the purpose of life" can of worms but to dismiss scientific research because of how long it will take is a defeatist attitude. You can not predict what fruits will a particular scientific research will be bring just as you cannot predict the future.

The point is that we don't know exactly when an unpreventable extinction-level event will happen. It makes sense to plan for such an event as early as possible.

May I remind you the dinosaurs died because they had neither nukes nor rockets.

Nor telescopes, but that's beyond the point.

Mankind puts all its eggs in one basket. Our odds of survival against planetary catastrophes increase with the number of planets we colonize. The more spread we are, the bigger the chances. The timescales involved are huge but, just like someone wins the lottery every week, I'm willing to bet that, as we discuss, a civilization we know nothing of is being wiped out by an unforeseen catastrophe precisely because all of them lived on top of a single rock.

Of what comfort would a daydream ark be for the rest of us? There are 6.8 billion of us. What good are my feelings of camaraderie if an impactor happens to snuff most of us out? "Oh boy, I've been blasted to ashes by an inbound comet, but it's all OK because someone else made it out alive."

I also dispute the utility calculus you're performing.

At what cost could we move a sustainable colony elsewhere? What is the probability that we'll all be expunged by a bit of rock zipping around the solar system? Is there another way we could allocate those resources to achieve a better expected outcome?

> I've been blasted to ashes by an inbound comet, but it's all OK because someone else made it out alive."

Don't be so selfish. Odds are a couple of the survivors are distant cousins, so, at least some of your genes are safe. And you can also record messages for the survivors to safeguard.

Or we can develop the technology to upload you to a simulation somewhere else.

> What is the probability that we'll all be expunged by a bit of rock zipping around the solar system?

Given time, if we stay limited to the Earth, 100%

> Is there another way we could allocate those resources to achieve a better expected outcome?

Again, it depends on the timeframe we are talking about. I think the first thing we have to do is to thoroughly understand the threats we face. The second step is to understand what Plan-B looks like. We really need to look into environmental risks (Yellowstone, climate change), political ones (Iran with nukes), economic ones and the risk of a floating rock with our name on it hitting us soon enough. If a rock or an erupting Yellowstone or a bunch of fanatics with high-tech WMDs don't kill us, we may get fried when the Milky Way and Andromeda collide (it'll happen in about a billion years, and while stars won't likely hit each other too frequently, gas clouds will light up). If that doesn't destroy the Earth, the Sun will eventually swallow it as it gets old, in, IIRC, 6 billion years.

The Earth is doomed. Every planet and star is doomed. Even the universe itself is doomed. Its only chance is if someone smart enough survives long enough to figure out how to avoid it.

Why not focus on things that are problems now?

Because those problems will never be solved entirely, no matter what we do?

> Human space travel is a waste of money from a scientific standpoint.

It all depends on your kind of science. For an astronomer, manned space travel is pointless. In fact, space travel is pointless unless we invent some kind of FTL propulsion that can actually put a probe close to some interesting phenomena or allow us to look from another direction.

OTOH, a thousand rovers will tell us nothing about how human societies would organize in artificial habitats. A machine cannot tell how it feels to be able to hide Earth from view with your extended hand.

That's what manned space travel is for. It's not to bring back measurements or soil samples. It's to bring back stories that reminds us how extraordinary we can be.

And to inspire us to be extraordinary.

Human space travel is a waste of money from a capital market sense, perhaps.

Think of all we've learned by putting humans into space. Think of all we'd have to learn to put humans permanently on the moon - from long-term temperature regulation to ecosystem habitats and materials science.

It's not the destination of the journey that matters. It's what we need to figure out in order to get there that does.

So what, specifically, about space travel would cause us to make those discoveries about temperature regulation and ecosystem habitats? Unless there's something specifically about hard vacuum and freefall that makes it easier to study these topics, they could be more easily and far more cheaply studied on Earth.

Sorry, I was writing more in context of permanent outposts due to recent political rhetoric.

Would it be a waste if we were making the coldly rational mission-oriented tradeoffs Zubrin proposes? Or only because treating it as a jobs program and national festival-of-empathy makes manned exploration insanely expensive?

I, personally, am looking forward to a Kickstarter from a credible private team to start work on a space elevator. And I'm only half-joking.

It made 14x as much for the US economy (including inspiring American children, excluding inspiring other children/nations). Can that sort of success ever be considered a waste over a long enough timeframe?

Over the short term, that's a great success. But over the long term (e.g., 50 years), it's only a 5.4% return. The S&P or DJIA, for example, had 7% returns over the same timeframe.

(Of course the two are not directly comparable, I'm just pointing out that "14x returns over unspecified timeframe" is a faulty argument.)

I think the inspiration point is a great one, if difficult to quantify. The American space program fostered a scientific literacy and pop-culture faith in the pursuit of engineering for surmounting important problems. And despite being a national program in a Cold War context, the success of the Apollo missions was bigger in scope than the US - it was a victory for all humans. We'd do well to cultivate these attitudes again.

The kind of accounting you need to do to arrive at that 14x figure would get you arrested if you put it in a corporate quarterly report, and anyway it totally ignores lost opportunity costs.

It's probably just a tribal thing. Libertarians know they'll do better as a group if there are places to run. Unmanned space travel doesn't help from this perspective.

Eh. Libertarians can be dreamers too. There's a vein of transhumanism and immortality-seeking in certain parts of the movement (which I don't particularly respect, but that's another matter).

But say you're a Libertarian and have some ideas about how society ought to be structured. Meanwhile, society is clearly structured a certain way which (according to your worldview) is not consistent with that (e.g. the US government, undue tax burdens on the private sector, and bureaucracies like NASA) and it's not particularly likely that you're going to see massive restructuring of it in the near future.

Why would that stop you from taking issue with specific irrational policies of those bureaucracies? If space travel (or carbon-reduction or whatever-you-want) is clearly a goal of society, then you might as well try to cope with reality and at least try to make sure they go after that goal as effectively as possible, and limit the damage it's going to do.

If something provokes interest and generates demand, then there's an economic case for it. Plenty of people want to see manned missions to Mars, etc. as ends in themselves, and this will motivate independent efforts to explore space. We're at the point where political monopolies are a hindrance.

I think it's the same situation. Our military is geared up to fight yesterday's war; the "wars" we're involved in now could be solved more cost-effectively by literally paying our enemies not to fight. The next real war, if it happens, will be fought almost entirely with semi- and fully-autonomous machines. All of the lessons we've learned will be pointless.

Similarly, NASA is geared up for yesterday's space race. We have to send a man to space! We have to send two men to space! We have to send a man to the moon! Uh, now what... We have to send a man to MARS!

Well, no, we really don't. Yes, we could. We know we could. We wouldn't learn anything significant by doing so that we couldn't learn for much cheaper here on Earth. It would be a massively expensive, complicated and dangerous tourist expedition-- a lot like sending soldiers to the Middle East, actually.

We all already live in space, on the largest, safest, most self-sustaining spaceship any of us can conceive of. The future of space exploration lies in the hands of semi- and fully-autonomous machines. There's no good reason for people to be in space, not for the foreseeable future at least.

the "wars" we're involved in now could be solved more cost-effectively by literally paying our enemies not to fight.

Thereby creating a nation of people dependent on our aid, who, when we cease sending aid due to budget constraints, will likely decide to start a war anyway. coughNorth Koreacough

Not saying that line of reasoning is totally invalid, but it's definitely not so clear-cut that you can use it in an analogy.

The intervention in Libya cost about $2.7BB[1]. With things heating up in Syria, and the need to further isolate Iran, we could be looking at another "low-intensity" operation there in support of the pro-democracy dissidents. Now, what would be more cost-effective: a similar campaign in Syria, or paying Assad $1BB to fuck off to Venezuela and stay there, and a further $1BB distributed to military commanders to get them to agree to cede power to an elected government? Yes it's dirty, but so is bombing the crap out of Damascus.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_military_intervention_in_L...

The total wealth of the Assad regime and their associates is in the hundreds of billions. You would have to pay them several trillion dollars at a minimum, though I doubt even that would be enough to convince them to leave.

I don't know - you don't necessarily have to compete with the hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth; you just need to be able to compete with the expectations of their wealth after you roll in your tanks and attempt to crush them. This is presumably a lower value, iff you have a credible threat to actually go in there and crush them with your tanks (which takes military expertise, expenditure, and the political will to pull it off).

In the current state of the US, however, the political will for new military action is fairly minimal, for better or for worse.

This is what I'm getting at. If the US wanted to remove Assad, he wouldn't have much of a choice: a life of luxury in exile, or death. I disagree, however, that it would require tanks. They could do the same as they did in Libya, which is far more justifiable and politically expedient. The dissidents in Syria are gearing up for war[1], so the ever-problematic boots on the ground would be unnecessary.

The US would only have to make Assad think it was serious about another Libya in order to give him some serious misgivings. Get NATO to make some rumblings, which would encourage Chavez to issue one of his proclamations against American Imperialism, then make a backroom deal to get Assad out.

At the end of the day, the Bush Doctrine of democracy-at-swordpoint is simply ineffective. There exists, however, the very real possibility of using soft/"firm" power to encourage the outcomes you want.

[1] http://www.economist.com/node/21543538

I see where you're coming from, but there are a number of things that would need to happen for this to work.

1) The Assad family would have to find the threat from NATO credible. 2) They would have to believe that there is no chance of defeating the rebels militarily and outlasting NATO bombardment. 3) The major power players in the Assad government would have to be willing to accept life in exile, with no opportunity for travel or engagement with the rest of the world. (Even Ben Ali, the dictator who left Tunisia semi-voluntarily, has an international warrant out for his arrest.) 4) Some country (presumably America) would have to be willing to either pay them a significant lump sum out of their own pocket or allow them to loot Syria before they leave.

You could pick any one of these apart.

Citation needed, sounds a bit tinfoily.

Not that I agree with the idea of paying off people, but Syria's total GDP is only about US$60 billion, hard to imagine that it would take "trillions".

I was going off of a quick Google search of Bashar al-Assad's personal wealth, which led to an MSN article putting it at $112 billion (http://money.ca.msn.com/savings-debt/gallery/dictators-and-t...). Since huge chunks of the economy are controlled by the Assad family and close associates, and have been for decades, I figured that it would be reasonable to assume they had accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars by now.

1) How do you convince Assad that the US won't just send some Marines to kill him after he agrees to go to Venezuela? Even if the US president gives some sort of personal guarantee, what stops the next president from violating it?

2) What if the national leader you're trying to pay off believes himself to be a true partiot and refuses to surrender his country to US interests?

You're gonna need a really strong argument to convince me that, all else being equal, building things is more damaging to a nation than blowing things up.

He's not talking about building things, at least I don't think.

One of the most effective things that has been done to slow down America's middle-eastern conflicts is paying people not to fight. When I say that, I don't mean building schools and hospitals. I mean giving people cash money in exchange for them not shooting our men and women.

In one sense, yes; in another sense, if I'm paying somebody to not blow up convoys, they're going to do something else. That might as well be building a school.

Paying enemies not to fight would probably just result in a lot more enemies who want to get paid all of the sudden.

"Once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane."

Rudyard Kipling

>"as we involve the U.S. military in more and more missions that look highly political"


  "When in the course of human events,"

  "and that, government of the people, 
   by the people, for the people, 
   shall not perish from the earth,"
and even:

   "We Will, In Fact, Be Greeted As Liberators"
the use of the military for political missions has been more common than for any other purpose.

With the possible exception of economic, although the two are often difficult to distinguish.

Yes, military missions and economic missions are difficult to distinguish.

Wars undertaken for political purpose vs wars undertaken for economic ones.

"as we involve the U.S. military in more and more missions that look highly political"

"War is the continuation of politics by other means." - Carl von Clausewitz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz)

This passage bewildered me. It’s hard to think of a time when the US military wasn’t comparably involved in politicized missions: see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_milit...

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not particularly unusual, and I don’t think they represent a rising trend. That doesn’t mean they’re excusable or inevitable, and they may have important differences from past politicized wars. I’m not apologizing for them, I’m just saying they aren’t a new phenomenon.

as we involve the U.S. military in more and more missions that look highly political, we're going to end up with a badly broken military, for exactly the same reasons.

<cough> Libya <cough> drones <cough>

Yep, the writing is already on the wall.

You bring up one factor left out of that calculation of how much an astronaut's life is worth, namely "don't make us look bad". The value of keeping up appearances is very high indeed!

This article ended up being more interesting than I expected. Particularly noteworthy is the point that if a program sets an unusually high value on human life, it diverts resources from other programs also intended to protect human life, and thus brings about LESSENED protection of human life through that drain on resources. This provides thoughtful perspective on policy trade-offs. As Thomas Sowell has written, "The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics."

I did find the policy of rejecting proposals with costs higher than $3MM/life-saved very interesting. If saving lives made up the entire extent of the federal budget, that sort of thing would clearly be appropriate. But as it is, is the money saved by the rejection of such proposals always redirected back into other lifesaving efforts?

If not, that would also seem to imply that a life's value is significantly less than $3MM. The author does specify that that figure is an upper limit.

>But as it is, is the money saved by the rejection of such proposals always redirected back into other lifesaving efforts? >If not, that would also seem to imply that a life's value is significantly less than $3MM. The author does specify that that figure is an upper limit.

No, it would just imply that we value other things. Also, it's crazy to think we can infer a consistent set of societal preferences from government actions. Individual humans aren't even consistent, much less when they get into groups.

Of course I was referring to the apparent value based on the metric used in the article, and not any socially normative value.

No one's claiming that every dollar saved will be directed back into lifesaving efforts, but the mere fact that we could be doing that is proof that what we're doing right now is not the best option we have available to us. Once we accept that, we can decide if saving more lives is the best use of that money, or instead we'd rather pursue other objectives such as actually going to Mars.


Various policy setters have to make these difficult decisions.

Yes. The "statistical murder" is a real phenomenon in ordinary life.

A decade or so ago Australia had a tightly regulated domestic air travel industry. Lobbyists successfully argued for deregulation so that air travel prices would come down, enabling more people to travel by the much-safer aeroplane than by risky road travel. It worked too.

The most interesting aspect IMHO is that just about everybody would agree that this reasoning brought to its logical conclusion is immoral.

For example, a Space Shuttle launch costs on average $450 million, kills on average 0.1 astronauts and destroys 0.015 shuttles (worth $3 billion). If the Space Shuttle could be redesigned so that on average it cost $300 million to launch but killed two astronauts every time, predictably, would that be morally right?

I would say no. But I agree that contradicts logic. I draw the conclusion that logic is for deciding some things and feelings are for deciding others.

Particularly noteworthy is the point that if a program sets an unusually high value on human life, it diverts resources from other programs also intended to protect human life

It's an interesting thought experiment, but of course that's not really relevant to the example at hand. If NASA insisted on 1e-10 astronaut risk, it would not divert any money from other programs that protect human life, because the NASA appropriations are not for that purpose. It would just mean that NASA got nothing done, and maybe eventually it would be shut down. But assuming that there's a rational and efficient allocation of resources for a clear goal seems just as much a fiction as other economic concepts like "efficient markets".

Space is dangerous. We should stop pretending it can be made "safe". It just gives politicians something to wag their tongues at when something inevitably goes wrong.

If you go to space you might not come back. That's why explorers rock and everyone else watches TV.

The article also misses an important variable. How much is discovery worth? Once that's added to the plus column, all of the other costs seem insignificant.

I think this is a reasonable outlook. Unlike those that die of cancer or asthma or car accidents or whatever, astronauts get a choice. First, estimating the astronaut risk is done a priori and is much more uncertain than the observed risks. Second, it seems the same value should not be applied to those that choose to accept the risk compared to those that are at mercy of things beyond their control.

Does anyone know if the military applies the same kind of calculations? Seems hard to believe.

I'd disagree there. Once upon a time, the sea was seen as dangerous. Everything can be made "safe" at some point.

Every year there are between 600 and 700 recorded deaths from recreational boating alone (not counting industrial or military accidents) [1]. No matter how safe we make it, there will always be accidents, and those accidents will kill people.

[1] http://www.uscgboating.org/statistics/accident_statistics.as...

Nothing is perfectly safe, but if you could make space travel as safe as boating then I'd say heliodor was correct.

Exactly. The air was once dangerous as well. Now there is negligible risk to travel almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours.

The most dangerous occupation in America, by fatalities, is fisherman. Yah, it's safer than it was in the past, but I wouldn't call it "safe", when compared to sitting in front of your computer.

I think the families of the tens of thousands of people killed in the Japanese Tsunami last year would disagree.

Yes, one day space will hurl us an asteroid and we'll be doomed.

My point was regarding transportation through a given medium.

Still it's undeniable that progress has been made. It's incremental and there are trade-offs, in the future we could have protective domes spanning entire cities that would withstand that amount of pressure for eg.

If you go to space you might not come back. That's why explorers rock and everyone else watches TV.


Every year hundreds of people do literally walk across the country on trails such as the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

It also misses things like: What's the cost of a million schoolchildren watching a space shuttle explode?

I reject the notion that we should coddle our children. The teacher is there for a reason. To provide context to what the child is being exposed to. And that can make all the difference.

Yes, you can die. Yes, it is dangerous. Yes, these brave men risked their lives and they lost. And if they had to do it all over again, they would risk their lives again.

Because if it wasn't for men like them, we would still be sitting in a cave poking a fire with a stick.

>brave men risked their lives

>men like them

It wasn't just men:





Language has power, and using "men" in this context makes invisible the contributions and bravery of these women and others like them. Sorry to seem PC, but it's important to get this stuff right if we want our kids to grow up in a better world.

That's ridiculous. When people use men in this context, they refer to humanity as a whole. Don't confuse your lack of English understanding as being PC.

So "women" is a collective noun for a group of humans all of whom are female, and "men" is a collective noun for a group of humans who are some mixture of males and females. There's no collective noun for a group of humans all of whom are male? Doesn't that strike you as a bit asymmetric?

I understand that "men" is sometimes used in the way you describe, but I believe that people who do so consider male the default gender of humans.

Brevity is the soul of wit. You certainly lose accuracy, but honestly, nobody wants to read a wall of text.

If you want to presume some sort of conspiracy sexist default supremacist undertone in what I wrote, fine, but I think that says more about you than about me.

Stop trolling this feminist garbage.

I couldn't agree with this more. Life is filled with risks, pretending otherwise is not good for anyone. But pushing the frontiers, exploring the boundaries comes with much greater risks.

Yet those risks can come with great rewards when they pay off and it is only by accepting those higher risks that society can advance and improve.

Yeah, I still remember watching it happen in class. Those men and women were all heroes, and inspired many of us to go into STEM careers.

"Because if it wasn't for men like them, we would still be sitting in a cave poking a fire with a stick."

Because of them, we now have large sticks which take us to space by poking the Earth with fire. :)

I agree with your entire comment. Think about the explorers of old, crossing oceans and continents, in hazardous conditions, with little technology to aid them, and with even less knowledge of where their journeys would lead. We stand on the brave shoulders of the countless who have come before, and it would be an insult to their accomplishments if we, as humans, suddenly abandoned, in the name of ultimate safety, the wonder of exploration, and the courage required to see it through.

Because if it wasn't for men like them, we would still be sitting in a cave poking a fire with a stick.

That's a false dichotomy. Children don't need to watch a shuttle burst into flames in order for science to progress.

Children don't need to watch a shuttle burst into flames in order for science to progress.

Yes, they do. Progress with zero risk of failure is no progress at all. To even attempt progress with zero risk of failure is to ensure that:

1.) You will minimize your progress

2.) You will fail anyway

...As the Shuttle all too ably demonstrated.

I think we misunderstand. I'm arguing that children don't need to watch potentially disturbing imagery to ensure that they contribute to furthering science in the future.

The argument "we should not coddle children because science" rings false to me. "Coddling children" is a bit of a strawman; there are things we don't tell children because of their innate immaturity. As are most things, it's a spectrum.

I would argue that hiding things from children the way we do only works because we aren't always successful at it. If we were able to hide things from children with 100% reliability, we'd end up with young adults incapable of functioning in society.

Like the average college freshman from the suburbs.

Which is precisely the sort of thing that leads me to say that!

But in order for children to mature, they must be exposed to circumstances that challenge their naive understanding. Maturity is only correlated with age, not caused by it.

Watching a shuttle explode on TV is not the same as, say, witnessing first-hand the gruesome death of one's own parents at the hands of a psychopath.

I agree that a balance has to be struck, but I think you've lost sight of where that balance is.

The cost of a million school children watching a space shuttle explode is the cost of the million conversations with parents and other adults that occur afterwards. These should be conversations that help develop each child's understanding of the world and the risks, challenges, and rewards of great human endeavors.

I've thought about this for a few minutes and I really don't know. What are you getting at? I'm not even sure if the dollar value of the cost is negative or positive. It was a tragedy, sure, but what's the lesson the kids take? Not to go into the sciences? Or to think about heroes who take on great risks to earn the knowledge that they're now learning in school?

I honestly don't know how to incorporate that aspect into the dollar cost/benefit the article proposes.

Invaluable. That's a wonderful opportunity for the million schoolchildren to develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the real world and the existence of failure.

Children should be exposed to the world, not sheltered from it. A parent's job is to prepare the child for the world, not hide the world from them with some naive and damaging attempt to keep them innocent. Sheltered children wind up unprepared for reality when it hits them smack in the face when they get on their own.

Less than the cost of them watching their parents die of obesity and heart disease. But we don't get all panicy about that...

In my case it was a desire to be an engineer!

No, that's exactly what it's not missing. Our fear of catastrophe is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars. Probably no single event in the history of space exploration contributed more to that fear than Challenger (and to a lesser extent, Columbia).

I can't speak for everyone, but I feel like something like that would have guaranteed I become either an astronaut or aerospace engineer.

What you really mean is what's the cost of a million schoolchildren watching a nation give up after a space shuttle explodes.

The damage is in the response, not the event.

Mars is key to humanity’s future in space. It is the closest planet that has the resources needed to support life and technological civilization.

... well, except for air, and food. But there's water! Which we can detect with sensitive instruments!

This whole article has no point. As everyone in the military knows full well, if the benefit is great enough humans will happily risk other human lives, even expend lives, by the thousands and even millions.

The "problem" is that there's nothing for humans to do in space that is worth so much as a single human life. This isn't 1937 anymore; the transistor and the IC have been invented and we know how to build robots. These days even the military pilots on Earth spend more and more time in chairs on the ground, steering robots, often from halfway around the world.

"...there's nothing for humans to do in space that is worth so much as a single human life"

Wrong. In the long run, even if we achieve some sort of utopia, all life will be destroyed by natural catastrophe. The only way to avoid this fate is to find other places to live. Mars is one of those places; so are the various exoplanets we are finding.

Indeed, this is humanities greatest challenge. Can we harness the incredible energy density of oil to get off planet and learn to live sustainably before the oil runs out?

There is no doubt that it will be difficult. Humans are so fragile, and the universe is extraordinarily harsh. It's a problem that will demand careful study, creativity, and great personal risk.

And I think we can do it.

Why? I have never understood this argument. What's so special about "humanity" that it needs to be preserved?

You're born, you live, you die. A species arises, it has its time on Earth, then it's extinct. Why are humans so special that we should bother about eventually going extinct in hundreds of thousands of years?

The only counter-argument is this: I want humanity to survive long enough to ponder those questions.

Biology? Because billions of years of evolution have made us all think: "We should have kids and hang around long enough to make sure they have kids too. That way we can keep this caravan rolling."

That's a pretty big motivator.

Sure, I get that. That's my I included the "hundreds of thousands of years" modifier. I want my kids to grow up, be happy and have their own kids if they want to, but I really don't care about what happens 100 generations down the road.

That's the perplexing part.

I want my kids to grow up, be happy and have their own kids if they want to, but I really don't care about what happens 100 generations down the road.

Stop trying to think 100 generations ahead -- that's pointless, no one can do that. Instead, think 100 generations back. What if the people alive at the time had been happy with their lots in life, content where they were living, and/or too afraid to try anything new? Where would you be now? Do you really feel good about being part of the generation that finally dropped the ball?

As I said in my response to your other post, you're still not answering the question I posed. Sure, you're answering other (unasked) questions, but those answers I already understand.

So long ago that it seems almost like someone else's life, my constant lonely trips to the beach just to stare at the sea and wonder what lay over the horizon made me realize that I had to cross oceans. So I went to school to become a Merchant ships officer. In an earlier century I would have been one of those idiots hanging around the docks trying to get on a ship sailing into the regions "where there be dragons." In future centuries that version of me would be hanging around spaceports dreaming of venturing into the unknown regions where riches would be found.

I said the above to illustrate that I understand wanderlust and the joy of exploration for its own sake perfectly well. What I don't get is this need to "preserve the species."

What I don't get is this need to "preserve the species."

Read some Dawkins.

What's so special about "humanity" that it needs to be preserved?

The frustrating thing about your nihilistic argument is that there's no practical way we can divide humanity into the grasshoppers who live only for today and the ants who live for the future. A consequence of the advance of democracy -- itself arguably a prerequisite for survival -- is that the grasshoppers will always be with us, and will always have a voice.

If there were a way we could magically reserve the benefits and spinoffs of human space exploration, up to and including the potential preservation of the species, to those who agreed to pay for them, I'd be much more accepting of this kind of question.

But colonization of other celestial bodies is too big a job for only part of humanity to tackle. We all need to pull in that direction, or we'll fail. So the fundamental problem becomes one of how to convince people of all walks of life that this is a worthwhile goal that can, and should, be achieved. It's a tough sell -- like the great European cathedrals, it will take longer than any one lifetime, and cost more than any one king can afford. But it seems possible to make sound, rational arguments in favor of such a mission. There are times when I almost believe that the necessary case can be made, and that the necessary work will be done...

... at least until some overly-clever bozo asks an unanswerable question like, "What's so special about humanity that it needs to be preserved?"

Then, I sink back into my usual unproductive attitude: "Fine. Screw you. Stay behind, see if we care." And sure enough, as usual, nothing changes.

Four paragraphs of annoyed text and yet you didn't answer the question!

I answered it by pointing out that it's objectively unanswerable.


IMHO, humanity's goal for the next hundred years is to enhance our energy and medical technologies as quickly as possible. (space takes a distant third).

We are essentially in a race against time: if we are too slow, we will deplete our resources and wipe ourselves out.

There are lots and lots of things that are worth a single human's life (or tens, hundreds of lives). Research is one of them. For instance, if we could magically trade a random 100 lives for knowing if there is extraterrestrial life, I believe that it's a worthy trade. That's just one example.

You know where there are lots of resources? Space. Recently ran an economic projection for a venture that was being proposed out of Russia - tugging an asteroid of copper into orbit around Earth and mining it would alleviate the environmental impact of surface mining while cutting the price of these materials to a fraction of what they are today.

Speaking about energy, check out space-based solar power. I will be the first to admit that present conceptions are as pre-mature as the solar industry in general, but, it is theoretically a vastly more efficient way to generate power than other options, barring nuclear.

To make an endeavor feasible, it would really have to be a GX large-scale multi-nation effort, and, the agreed (tacit or otherwise) collapse of certain industries (like, collapsing copper pricing, etc.)

I don't believe the current socio-political-industrial-financial mechanisms in place have any desire (though don't actively "conspire" against this sort of thing), as its too "long term" thinking, and, is really more a "species survival" deal vs short-term profit gaining.

/This is rambling, apologies.


Wouldn't be more expensive than anything the oil or heavy infrastructure majors undertake on their own today. Yes, a multi-billion dollar project all in, but that occurs in stages.

The time horizon is a problem. But everything I said fits the 4-10 year infrastructure ROI test. Not that I don't expect the first projects to have anything short of heavy government involvement.

Your sentiment comes up a lot, and I tend to point to this essay when it does: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2639456

There's nothing for humans to do in "other places to live" either. We accomplish nothing by being here. In fact it would be better if we gave up already.

A human is born in need of air, water, food, and pastime, and the best we can do is satisfy these needs only partially. There is no reason to create these needs (other than to partially satisfy existing needs that didn't need to be created), but there are many reasons not to create these needs.

You correctly note that the universe is extraordinarily harsh. I see no rational reason to continue fighting it. There are only superstitious reasons, like pride, sunk costs, think of the children, equivocating humanity the race with human the individual, identifying with your genetic material, assigning intrinsic value to life, etc.

> all life will be destroyed by natural catastrophe.

I'm going to disagree with you there.[1]

A bit tongue in cheek, but regarding your larger point, I think that thinking about preserving life in our corner of the universe solely in terms of keeping meat puppets alive in interstellar space is a rather parochial way to think. We already know of two forms of life that are far better suited to the void, autonomous robots and bacterial spores, why not get them out first?

[1]: http://worldcat.org/title/impossible-extinction-natural-cata...

In the interest of brevity I left out the post-humanist angle. You're right: we can work on the problem from the other angle of making our form more survivable. Various post-humanist ideas, from genetic engineering to uploading mind state into a (presumably more survivable) computational substrate are options. There is a reasonable argument to be made that our time would be better spent achieving these forms before attempting serious colonization. However, I suspect that "meat puppet" colonization is easier than we think, especially if we accept the OP's argument that we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot with unreasonable safety requirements.

The problem is, humans are so much more effective than robots at planning and independent decision making, which is critical when there's a 8-40 minute communications round trip time. The two wildly successful MER probes Spirit and Opportunity traveled a combined ~40km in around 4,000 sols. A human areologist could cover that much in a week.

And just how many Spirit probes could one send to Mars for the cost of sending a single human?

Based on a bit of Googling, the answer seems to be on the order of "ten", as a minimum. Numbers of $20 billion or so were being thrown around for a manned mission, and the currently-in-transit Mars Science Lab is up past $1.5 billion after a 30% cost overrun:


Given that the $20 billion is a pie-in-the-sky planning number and has yet to experience overruns of its own...

Meanwhile, what's the rush? Mars is not going anywhere.

And meanwhile too, is your human really going to cover 40km in a week after a ten month trip in free fall? Not at the present state of the art:


Or are we shipping an SUV to Mars along with the human and all of her groceries? The Spirit-probe-to-human ratio continues to grow.

It's not something that can just be parallelized away with identical probes. It's the difference between a multifunction calculator and a PC. The PC may weigh 100x as much, but it has an infinitely greater breadth of capability. That's why human spaceflight is going to be important for the foreseeable future. Unless you want to design a separate probe for every conceivable task (some of which we undoubtedly don't know yet).

"We are going to have failures. There are going to be sacrifices made in the program; we've been lucky so far. If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." — Virgil 'Gus' Grissom.

It seems like most of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era astronauts felt like their lives came second to mission success. I'm sure there are plenty of astronauts that feel the same way today.

With a pool of astronauts willing to take reasonable risks to advance space exploration, it's the NASA management that has been responsible for disallowing the more dangerous missions. On the one hand that's tragic, but on the other it makes sense from a PR perspective. With each spaceflight tragedy there has been a backlash from taxpayers and Congress. Politicians will use spaceflight accidents to push agendas that cut funding, etc.

NASA has to walk a fine line between keeping the program safe enough to maintain funding and adventurous enough to make gains in space exploration. I think in early NASA it was easier to justify the human cost of accidents because of Cold War pressure, but now there is a harder time with this justification and thus the huge emphasis on safety.

Either you decide you want to do something worthwhile, or you eliminate manned spaceflight. But right now we're spending billions and getting nothing worthwhile accomplished. It's not tight-rope walking, it's the worst of both worlds.

What is the risk a mountaineer or fighter pilot or car racer facing? Should we ban these people from taking calculated risks? Are there some stats about how risky various adventure sports are compared to Space Exploration?

Another question is what is the worth of revisiting the moon to set up a hyper expensive tourist camp there? Should it not be NASA's job to focus on research that lays the groundwork for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk to expand human presence beyond Earth?

Apollo was a national security project -- demonstration of our system, exploration of technology of potential military importance.

Fixing Hubble was really important. I'm not sure how much the shuttle's work was of the same magnitude, or couldn't have been done with automated gear.

BUT bureaucratic and political imperatives called for continuation of the space program, at scale, and that called for justification of the costs. The money is no big deal, but if those justifications aren't that good, the collision of those weaknesses with the human risks will cause cognitive dissonance. If the people concerned haven't the will to rethink the whole thing -- and there are many examples of much, much larger failures -- you're going to see some strange behavior along the way. Shuttles failed twice in 100 missions, is the milestone of first senator in orbit really worth a 2% fatality risk? No, but rather than admit that and cancel the mission the response is to imagine that risk can be driven down to negligible. And if that isn't possible, the standard is going to shift from "known but justifiable risk" to "we're doing the best we can / no expense has been spared".

Of course it doesn't make sense. But if they recognized that, they wouldn't have flown such missions in the first place.

Fixing Hubble was really important. I'm not sure how much the shuttle's work was of the same magnitude, or couldn't have been done with automated gear.

Although a staunch supporter of Zubrin and his Mars strategy, as well as a supporter of the HST maintenance effort, I think he shot down his own proposition in this particular article. He points out that Hubble cost $5 billion, while elsewhere, he casually mentions that each of the 125 Space Shuttle launches cost $3 billion.

So for the price of just one additional Shuttle launch, we could've simply launched a new (and potentially improved) copy of Hubble instead of risking anything at all to fix the old one. That's what I call a no-brainer.

You misunderstood. The total value of the physical Shuttle itself is $3 billion. The average cost per trip is $450 million. The marginal cost per trip isn't available, but it is undoubtably less. Probably around $200-300 million.

Re-reading, it looks like you're right; I withdraw the comment.

This article answered for me one of those things I'd always wondered but never took time to figure out: why no one has been back to the moon even though our technology has advanced exponentially in the last 40 years. An irrational emphasis on risk makes perfect sense.

Still doesn't explain why no other country has done it, though. Well, except for the boring explanations about high costs and no immediate benefits besides bragging rights...

How about moon dust that eats away at your equipment, sticks to everything, and can cause iron poisoning (and possibly a lung disease similar to silicosis)?

“The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on [Apollo 17 astronaut] Jack [Schmitt]’s boot,” Taylor says.

That abrasion happened over 3 moonwalks (each lasting a bit over 7 hours).


Makes a great portal conductor, though.

see my other comment on this post, aerospace tech actually has not advanced exponentially, but asymptotically.

The article is thought-provoking, but marred by an enormous and unsupported leap of logic at the outset:

Yet despite vastly superior technology and hundreds of billions of dollars in subsequent spending, the agency has been unable to send anyone else farther than low Earth orbit ever since.

Why? Because we insist that our astronauts be as safe as possible.

Safety concerns undoubtedly carry a cost at NASA, but they are hardly the central reason there have been no manned missions beyond Earth orbit. During Apollo, when presumably the agency wasn't so safety conscious, NASA's budget (adjusted for inflation) was twice what it is today, and as a percentage of the Federal budget it was over 5x today's level.

> as a percentage of the Federal budget it was over 5x today's level.

This is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the absolute budget, adjusted for inflation. In addition, given the greatly improved technology, we should be able to get to the moon for far cheaper. In fact, all the R&D has already been done. It should be a cake walk on half the budget.

The share of the budget reflects the level of political support. So it's not irrelevant---undertaking something like a lunar mission requires long-term commitment, not just year-by-year budget equivalence. And during the Shuttle era, there was no political will to commit to a lunar or Mars mission in addition to building the Space Station. Even if the lunar mission did cost half as much, it would still mean doubling the budget.

The question is... Why?

If going to the moon is 75% less than it was in the Apollo days, that is cool, but what do we accomplish by going there?

There's plenty of science still to be done on the moon, and when you combine the recent discovery of water in the craters and the theory that the moon is composed of Earth ejecta from an impact, and there's a reasonably strong science case to be made. Personally, I'm still of the opinion that we should prioritize Mars over the moon, but that's not based on any studied consideration of the science.

The human-exploration portion of NASA has shrunk in comparison to where it was during Apollo. We have a lot of Earth-observing instruments now, planetary missions to Mars, etc. (This is not a bad thing, but it complicates the comparison.)

When discussing the 2 rovers with a 90% success rate, the author comes to the conclusion: <blockquote>The right answer is to go for two rovers, because if you do it that way, you will have a 99 percent probability of succeeding with at least one of the vehicles</blockquote>

Which is not exactly right. It's correct if you're looking at random, uncorrelated factors. However, two rovers from the same program are not going to be uncorrelated. If one rover is hit by a software blunder, it's likely the other one will have the same problem. (e.g. using mks instead of english units in the flight computer, using a 16 bit counter that overflows to name two)

If one rover is hit by a software blunder, it's likely the other one will have the same problem.

Actually, this is something they plan for. It is not unheard of to have the software for two different devices developed by two different teams who are not allowed to talk to each other, precisely to avoid this scenario.

In fact, there are Common Cause Analysis people whose whole job is to think of this sort of thing and recommend ways to avert it.

Or they could not launch the two rovers at the same time and use the failures of the first rover to make the second work, in which case the errors become anti-correlated.

The problem with that approach is that given the orbital dynamics of the Sun-Earth-Mars system, there's a relatively brief window every couple of years when it makes sense to launch a mission. If there's a crippling error in the first launch, it's somewhat unlikely that it can be identified and fixed before the second one hits Mars orbit.

As he barely acknowledges, the problem isn't necessarily that NASA is too risk-averse when it comes to human lives, it's society at large. After every failure, there is a massive outcry along the lines of "how much money did we give you again? And you still couldn't get it right?"

The argument that the money could be spent elsewhere has been around since the beginning of the space program, I think. Do the people making this argument know that NASA's current yearly budget is around 0.6% of the entire budget (and only ever as high as 4.41%[1])? So really, the question should be flipped around. Think of what we could accomplish if all the money spent inefficiently elsewhere were instead given to a space program (not necessarily NASA, because I won't deny it has its problems)

It also seems silly to me to use large-number probability analysis on what are usually one-time occurrences. If a $2 billion mission fails immediately after launch, and it could have been prevented by $0.5 billion in more testing, then spending the extra money does make sense, especially if the failure would also cause public outcry. And it would not mean that an identical mission would also have the same risk. If the failure was due to bad design or a systemic error in a part (the more likely scenarios than a random failure[2]), then that failure would also happen in the next mission.

So yes, I agree that NASA needs to have a focused goal and shorter timelines, but I think this article might have been better directed at the public, then scapegoating NASA administrators.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA

[2] Source: a talk by the founder of AeroAstro, sorry it's not online

>"the problem isn't necessarily that NASA is too risk-averse when it comes to human lives, it's society at large."

The change in attitude is almost certainly generational. The Apollo era presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford) were all World War II veterans. So were most decision makers within the space program.

By the time of the Challenger explosion, American attitudes had changed to the point where 241 combat deaths in Beirut saw America remove its boots on the ground - a reaction to troop casualties unlikely during the island hopping campaigns forty years earlier.

This is not to say that Americans are necessarily placing too much value on life. Space Shuttle flights - like Beirut - lacked a compelling vision to underscore the mission; servicing the Hubble is not a giant leap for mankind.

the problem isn't necessarily that NASA is too risk-averse when it comes to human lives, it's society at large.

I couldn't agree more. I'm continually saddened that the traditional salutation to a guest leaving your home, for example, is "have a safe trip". In my dream world, people would wish each other a "a rich life of fulfilling experiences".

We shouldn't be trying to wrap ourselves into cocoons, setting a goal of simply surviving for the longest possible time. The length of the life shouldn't be paramount: it should be the area under the curve: how much did we experience, to what extent were we able to pursue our dreams?

Interesting, but I thought it sort of built a straw-man argument in that the main premise, that all the delay on a Mars mission is just to lower risk to the astronauts, isn't really substantiated. The calculation that ends up showing that the cost of a Mars mission is a hugely inefficient way of reducing risk to human life assumes the entire cost is to lower human risk. So it's only an upper limit, and there is no way to judge whether it's a useful upper limit.

Besides, the fact that there is a difference between risk to human life and risk of mission success is only relevant if there is a significant probability of mission success. You can only play the game with multiple missions for redundancy if an individual mission has a probability of success reasonably close to 1, otherwise it doesn't buy you much.

Of course, this whole affair assumes that we actually have some hope of a priori estimating the risk of failure of complex systems. I doubt it's possible, and I think that's confirmed by the observed 2% shuttle failure rate compared to what the "acceptable risk" of the mission was supposed to be.

Sure would be interesting to know what people disagree with so strongly that it warrants putting me in the negatives. This seems like a noncontroversial comment to me.


  "It's a very sobering feeling to be up in space and
   realize that one's safety factor was determined by the
   lowest bidder on a government contract." --Alan Shepard

If an astronaut dies during a mission, there's a lot more indirect cost incurred than just the astronaut's life. There are the endless investigations and media coverage and related activities that are hard to put a number on.

Simply put, government funded programs receive more scrutiny than commercial ventures. If a private inventor dies while experimenting with their own invention, there isn't the massive, longtime affecting fallout similar to a government disaster.

Now, sure, I am a proponent of space exploration and its advancement. But, having worked with the government in the past, I kind of understand why their risk management is so heavy handed. Few government leaders will take on that much risk themselves.

True, but I'd say this is something of the Pygmalion effect en masse. We have coddled the public into expecting risk-free space ventures and so they react accordingly when risk-free turns out to be risk-fraught.

Few government leaders will take on that much risk themselves

This is why I support NASA's initiatives to privatise the risk (and responsibility) of certain missions.

That being said, we accept risk in the military. The solution is to create an institution that is protected from political whims so it can take the long-run risks it needs to.

Total aside, bug this article caused me to gawk once again at the technical progress in the US during the mid-20th:

State of the Art, 1945: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:F8F_Bearcat_%28flying%29.j...

State of the Art, 1965: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lockheed_SR-71_Blackbird.j...

State of the Art, 1971: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Apollo_CSM_lunar_orbit.jpg

After that, I think we hit a technological wall, you can almost see the asymptote after the mid 70's. Though I think Space X is poised to knock some things over again if they succeed in their "cheap but reliable" approach, which basically amounts to attacking the problem as if it were a commercial airline engine as opposed to a rocket engine, and subjecting it to those standards of rigor. But that's a different kind of progress.

More on topic, this article completely fails to support it's hyperbolic "costs thousands of lives" subtitle.

I've also heard this argument used by libertarians such as Milton Friedman to denounce the FDA, saying that it has costed lives through being overly cautious by delaying the approval of life-saving drugs. The proposed alternative is to not have an FDA, but rather sue the drug companies directly in civil court if their drug ends up being harmful and they haven't performed adequate testing/trials.

Actually, most of the FDA costs are created during the effectiveness phases. If FDA went back to it's original mission of safety, the estimates are drug approval costs would be 25% of current costs.

Of course the market (doctors and healthcare customers) would have to determine the effectiveness of the new drugs. So the cost is not eliminated, just shifted to the more efficient and moral option.

Statistically, the Russian space program is safer than the American. They're not exactly famed for their health and safety, in a hilariously stereotypical tradition Russians piss on their rocket (it dates back to Yuri's flight) and until recently they carried shotguns to ward of bears after returning.

The problem is outlined in the article, but not expanded. Every year politicians change NASA's goals. If the project you're working on keeps changing spec it's going to expand the timeline. Didn't Bushes plan call for us to be on the moon by 2015?

Another problem is the way NASA makes their vehicles. Private companies make products with the goal of making a profit. NASA's goal is to get people into space. The space shuttle is an example of this failure: it was overpriced, so dangerous cutbacks were made which ruined two of the vehicles. In an ironic twist, the soviet Buran suffered from none of these issues.

Starting with near zero space capability in 1961, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put men on our companion world in eight years.

The whole premise of this article, that we can't send people beyond LEO any more because of risk aversion, is based on this line and it is wrong. There are several differences between today and the 1960s that make manned space flight less feasible. This can be summarised as political and manufacturing, with the former driving the latter.

Politically the world and the US are different places, the cold war is over so the need for grand gestures for moral building and propaganda has gone.

However the OP's line of near zero space capability is wrong, ICBMs were being designed and tested at a furious rate throughout the 1950s. This created a massive pool of people with first hand knowledge, and a massive manufacturing base from which to draw upon.

I like the article but I wonder a little about the figures. He seems to assume that the extra research measures push the likelihood of a successful mars mission from 90% to 95%.

I think this underestimates the complexity of the problem. Two thirds of automated mars missions have failed, with an especially dark period around the time of the 1980s, when we were to have sent out the first Astronauts.

I think that there is also an issue with the military/contest aspect. The moon mission had a cold war battle feeling which would be hard to ignite now -- deaths in space just seem tragic and expensive in a way that they did not before (his description of the finger paints being a good example). Would people have the stomach to spend billions to kill 5 people on their way to Mars? How many times before they lose interest?

>He seems to assume that the extra research measures push the likelihood of a successful mars mission from 90% to 95%.

He doesn't assume that at all. That was just a hypothetical situation, he never implied that those were actual figures.

Lost me after defining the worth of an astronaut to be $50 million, and the value of scientific knowledge obtained from a longer-lived Hubble to be incalculable.

Even though I think the author makes a point worth considering, I found that a really sloppy justification.

Indeed. I would say that in truth an astronaut's life and a bunch of money are incommensurable.

The value of the article lies in showing that if agencies pretend to assign a certain value to a human life then they can become less inconsistent. (And if in this case it serves Zubrin's laudable aim of getting to Mars now, so much the better.)

For Zubrin himself to be consistent, OFC, he should have tried to assign a value to, say, another decade of Hubble data. Omitting that was, as you say, sloppy.

BTW I find it quite shocking that neither the article nor the other comments so far consider the relevancy of the astronaut's opinion of what is an acceptable risk for him. It is, after all, his life, and he remains a taxpayer like everyone else.

I guess in the future where things like life extension and legal suicide are commonplace it will be considered strange to ignore a person's wishes in this way

There is a simple reason why we can ignore what the astronaut wants: if any particular one is too risk-averse, there are many other similarly qualified ones that are less risk-averse and NASA can hire them instead.

Additionally, I would not be surprised at all if the average astronaut is willing to put up with much more risk than the government or general public is willing to put him or her in.

It's worth exactly what the guy is willing to risk to go out there.

That's a wise policy:

=== To avoid such deadly waste, the Department of Transportation has a policy of rejecting any proposed safety expenditure that costs more than $3 million per life saved. ===

the multi-decade preparatory exercise adopted as an alternative to real space exploration has already cost the lives of 14 astronauts, and will almost certainly cost more as it drags on...

Seriously? Does anyone have more information on this? I like Reason but sometimes they can be a little biased. If there's no missing context and we're literally killing astronauts in safety training then there is no excuse not to just get them in space already.

He's referring to the entire space shuttle program as "the multi-decade preparatory exercise adopted as an alternative to real space exploration". There were 14 astronauts killed on the Challenger and the Columbia disasters, 7 from each.

Zubrin is talking about the deaths in Apollo I, Space Shuttle, etc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight-related_acc...).

His point is exactly that, get them into space already. Or rather, give them a mission that is worth risking their life.

(We posted at the same time.) No, he's just talking about Shuttle programs. He considers the Apollo programs to be real exploration.

Oddly enough I think one of hackernews's heros (and mine) Richard Feynman is one of the causes (but not blame). His appearance at and commentary of the Challenger disaster made people extremely allergic to risk. You can argue his message was taken to the extreme but perhaps his scientists attitude was not so attuned to the engineering mindset of compromise and risk assessment.

One cost-effective proposal for a mars mission that was actually discussed:


Btw, -many- people died during early space travel.

They forgot to price in the cost of a politician's power into the life of an astronaut, which is worth everything the politician can put to bear to keep it...

maybe in bad taste, but made me think of this 'art' http://www.astronautsuicides.com/

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Epic fail. The author starts off with the moral premise that all lives are of equal monetary value. Moral laws != mathematical laws! We put #s on people all the time: net worth? Garbage in gives garbage out.

Author premise only half right. The cost over-runs of the shuttle program were composed of two deep expensive factors.

Infinite human safety and the costs of having a horizontal system of sub contractors building the shuttle system instead of a vertical approach.

But, conversely while close to infinite safety costs can reach military objectives, for example using tracked-light heavy armor in places of urban combat(less civilian casualties thus locals want to work with our forces), the same cannot be made for civilian space agency in terms a full benefits.

Here is where you supposedly "smart" people are morons.

We didn't go to the moon in the first place.

They jumped the shark when they showed people on dune buggies on the moon.

They won't go back because when people see how hard it is to land and relaunch with human life in tow, the world will know we didn't go in the first place.

Nobody will be going to the moon until it doesn't matter that the world finds out we didn't go in the first place.

Ask yourself. What is easier: scamming a trusting, patriotic 60's public on TV or landing a human being on a foreign planet.., whats harder? Having people drive a dune buggie, then relaunching and landing safely back on earth or setting up a desert set piece to look like the moon. Or maybe a Hollywood studio to look like the moon. I've seen the video. It's a joke.

And you're shocked we never went back to the moon? Please! How gullible can you be?

>scamming a trusting, patriotic 60's public on TV or landing a human being on a foreign planet

Not only 60's public but also the public of every subsequent year (and by "public" you have to include scientists, engineers and otherwise intelligent men and women from all walks of life). Given all that I'd say the former is much harder (downright impossible) to accomplish.

Also none of the thousands of people involved, who would have had to be in on the secret, have come forward.

It would be much harder for thousands of people to keep such a secret, than it would to just go to the moon.

Not sure if troll.

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