NASA’s Costly Risk Aversion

by Rand Simberg on September 7, 2011 · 5 comments

in Culture, Nanny State, Precaution & Risk, Space

Over at Pajamas Media this past weekend, I describe the current travails of the International Space Station in the wake of the dual Russian launch failures a couple weeks ago, and how it is an indication that (as always) actually accomplishing things in space for the billions that we spend on it is relatively unimportant.

As I note over there, we may be about to abandon, at least temporarily, a hundred-billion dollar facility (in cost to date at least, if not in value) because we don’t want to gamble the lives of astronauts, on which we seem to place such an inordinate value that they are too precious to risk on actual spaceflight:

We don’t really have to abandon the ISS — NASA has several options. The safest solution would be to simply load up a fresh crew module with payload, and deliver it to replace the one that is going stale, extending the stay of current crew. Or, while it wouldn’t be prudent, if they don’t discover what the problem was on time, we could hope that what happened last month was just an anomaly, and go ahead with the next Soyuz as planned. Or the astronauts could take the risk of a winter landing.

Or (and this would be the gutsiest, but highest payoff thing to do), we could throw together a rudimentary life-support system for the Dragon, put in some couches, and send crew up on it in December. After all, Elon Musk said last year after its maiden flight that if someone had been in it, they would have had a nice ride. In so doing, they would have eliminated the need for the Russians, and immediately have a lifeboat capable of carrying seven people with a designed orbital lifetime of a year, allowing them to immediately increase crew size and perhaps increase the productivity of the facility. And when the launch abort system is completed in a couple years, the safety would be improved, but its absence wouldn’t have prevented us from continuing to boldly open the frontier.

That NASA doesn’t seem to be considering any of these things, and is instead contemplating abandoning our only orbital outpost on which we’ve spent tens of billions over decades, even if only temporarily, speaks eloquently about our national perceptions of its importance, and trivializes it. It would say that unlike commercial fishing, coal mining, construction, and liberating peoples, opening up frontiers, even the harshest one, isn’t worth the risk of a human life. But I’ll bet that there are plenty of people in the astronaut office who’d be willing to take that risk, and in the unlikely event that there aren’t, there are plenty of people fully qualified who are. It’s what our ancestors would have done and how they created this great nation that once put men on the moon. What has happened to us?

This is just one more example of our apparent inability to make sensible economic trade-offs, whether in space policy, or in more literally mundane matters, such as environmental impact assessments that prevent the rapid implementation of infrastructure improvements for “shovel ready” jobs. But it’s also a symptom of our continuing to pretend that we understand why we are sending people into space at all with federal money. Until we have a grown-up national discussion about that, shed of nostalgia for Apollo and “national greatness,” not to mention the white-collar welfare aspects and myths about technology spin-off, the vast majority of taxpayer funds spent on this endeavor will be wasted.

HMP September 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm

“we could throw together a rudimentary life-support system for the Dragon, put in some couches”

Do you actually have any idea just how much work this would entail? Much, much easier said than done.

Rand Simberg September 8, 2011 at 12:13 am

Everything is easier said than done, except saying things. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

flyingmike September 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm

“… throw together a rudimentary life-support system for the Dragon, put in some couches, and send crew up on it in December.”

We don’t even need to run that risk – just install six couches and a Mercury-grade life support system, pack in the remaining “non-essential” supplies NASA was planning to send up on the December COTS demo flight, fly the Dragon up empty to ISS, and keep it berthed as a lifeboat for a year. The current crew can extend their stay until springtime in the Steppes while the Russians figure out what happened, knowing they have a backup option to ride the Dragon down in their Russian launch and entry suits if they need to before the problem is resolved and the Soyuz are past their use-by dates.

PhysBrain September 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Another option that nobody seems to have had the foresight to contemplate (at least not that I’ve heard): land the Soyuz in America: either at Edwards AFB or White Sands NM.

I like the idea of a Dragon lifeboat. I’ve floated that one before, but I do think it’s rather short notice to get it put together. Unless, of course, they had already been contemplating this and have much of the engineering analysis work done.

Next question: Can a Soyuz capsule be robo-docked? I assume the docking system is similar to the Progress, which would mean yes.

I agree that NASA was too quick to jump to the “we must abandon ISS” conclusion. At the very least they could have said that they were considering other options, and they would only abandon the ISS as a last resort. Unfortunately, discussion of the other options was conspicuously absent.

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