The Challenge for NASA

Someone recently sent me a link to an interview with Robert Zubrin, where he discusses the financial value of an astronaut’s life. Zubrin points out that NASA is so risk averse it is essentially paralysed, which is a bit harsh and over simplistic, but I understand his point. For what it’s worth, I think NASA’s biggest challenge is the need for projects to transcend politics, as they require decades to come to pass. And NASA is such a behemoth, that it lacks the lean focus it had with Apollo.

When it comes to space travel, the problem with a risk averse culture is risk is subjective. I read an article that said the last shuttle had a 1 in 100 chance of ending in catastrophe. But this is not a crap shoot in Las Vegas, where every role of the dice is essentially the same, and so a random result can bring predictable outcomes over a long enough sequence. Just because two shuttles have been destroyed, didn’t mean the next launch was any more or any less likely to have a catastrophic failure, particularly as following those failures intense scrutiny was given not only to the cause of the failure but to all aspects of the mission. If anything, catastrophic failures drive down the odds of a repeat, because such scrutiny drives precision.

Rocket science is well understood. It’s a complex mix of interdependent systems, admittedly some of these have low tolerances and excessively dangerous consequences, but that’s just as true of air travel. The airlines have used the investigative model for decades to drive down accidents following air disasters. In the same way, the shuttle became safer rather than more risky over time.

The real problem for Columbia was not that NASA didn’t have enough risk averse managers at the time, it was that their aversion was selective. Foam strikes were so frequent they had become common place. What should have been alarming, that something as banal as Styrofoam could damage something as critical as the heat shield, should have demanded attention long before Columbia broke up. And this highlights the problem with a risk averse culture, it is based on hindsight not forward thinking.

It is over simplistic, though, to say risk aversion alone has stifled space exploration by NASA.

As much as I’d like to point the finger at bureaucracy, that’s not to blame either. The reality is, space is really, really big. The distances involved are astounding, beyond everyday recognition.

Consider this…

  • Earth to ISS, the International Space Station, is 220 miles
  • Earth to the Moon is 238,900 miles, which is over a 1000x as far as ISS
  • Earth to Mars is 228 million miles, on average, which is almost a 1000x as far as the moon, and over a million times as far as ISS

Let’s put this in perspective… If a journey from Earth to Mars was scaled down to a flight from New York to Los Angeles, then…

  • The International Space Station would orbit just beyond the curb outside your house
  • The moon would orbit around New Brunswick, New Jersey, just outside of New York

As much as I’d like to get steamy-eyed about a mission to Mars, operating a manned mission at those distances is simply beyond our capability. Unless there is a paradigm shift in space travel, like the advent of a space elevator, we’re going to be stuck in and around this gravity well we call Earth for quite some time to come.

The astounding success of the Mars rovers hints at the role robotics should play in future exploration. Personally, I’d love nothing more than to see a science rover on Enceladus or Europa, looking for evidence of frozen microbial life in the overturned ice.

9 thoughts on “The Challenge for NASA

  1. Hopefully those private space companies have good luck with what they are trying to do, I’m sort of worried that the first few flights could end up bad. I mean if you look back at the humble beginnings of NASA, America botched tons of rocket launches and barely got off the ground, just about the same time Yuri Gagarin was flying around in Space. Hopefully they test them thoroughly enough!

  2. I agree with what you say. You are absolutely right when you say that projects of this magnitude need to be separated from politics. If not, plans will change as soon as the administration changes. We were able to get to the moon because it was done within ten years after the Kennedy assasination and the US was understandably caught up and united in this tragedy.

    What we, as humanity must do to get “out there” in person, is the vision that some things transcend a human lifespan. We know this in our brains, but not in our hearts. Sometimes I wonder if this era of instant gratification and the incredible convenience of finding out what you want to know in a mere moment is preventing the realization of long-term projects. Unmanned missions are not limited by this frame of mind because they are run remotely at a much lower cost, both financially and people-time.

    In an optimistic (kind of) note, I think that a solution for this is beginning to take form. Business. When a for-profit company is formed and gains momentum, it goes on after the deaths of founders boards, etc. I simply takes a life of its own. The main motivation is making money and that’s that. This is what will drive space exploration forward, for better or worse….

  3. The Apollo missions were launched on the back of incredibly risky decisions. Those decisions, those risks, would be unthinkable in today’s culture. But they were acceptable, and necessary, to expand our frontiers and give birth to stupendous human achievements. Without that acceptance of risk, and to be blunt, of loss of life, we’ll not see such achievements again.

    We shouldn’t be debating whether to go to Mars today, we should there already. And I’m sorry, but for all the talk about robotic exploration it just doesn’t win the hearts and minds of the nation…strike that…the world. Robotic exploration doesn’t inspire the adults of tomorrow to dream, it doesn’t inspire citizens to spend more on space exploration. Only manned space exploration will do that.

    This is all moot, the fact is that the ball’s in China’s court re space exploration. And I’m betting the Chinese will be applying a totally different risk calculus in their efforts to expand the space frontiers. Let’s face it, the US manned space program has been effectively castrated. And Joe Q doesn’t give two hoots about how many robotic explorers you send, as long as he doesn’t pay for them.

    • Good points. Robotic probes may yet be the saviour of a manned mission to Mars… if Curiosity finds evidence of life on Mars, the impetus for human exploration will go through the roof. The technical and logistical efforts, though, should not be taken lightly, they are huge… These are fascinating times in which we live


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