Continuing Irrational Risk Aversion by NASA

About a month ago, I discussed the potential consequences of NASA’s extreme aversion to loss of crew. Over at NASA Space Flight, there’s a detailed discussion of the risks of de-crewing the ISS, a course that the agency is considering if the next Soyuz flight, scheduled for next month, doesn’t go well:

Numerous other risks are presented by operating the ISS without any crews, since no crews would be aboard to deal with any issues that may arise, such as vital hardware replacements in the event of a failure.

Perhaps the most serious risk would be a loss of attitude control by the ISS, since it could potentially lead to a complete loss of the station. While a string of failures would be needed for such a situation to occur, a loss of attitude control could cause the ISS to enter a tumble, which would prevent future spacecraft from docking to the ISS, and also preclude ISS reboosts from occurring.

Communications between the ground and the ISS could also be lost since the ISS’ antennas would not be able to maintain a lock on orbiting satellites or ground stations. This situation would mean that the ISS would slowly lose altitude and eventually enter into an uncontrolled re-entry, possibly endangering populations below.

The nation has invested over a hundred billion dollars in this facility, which is international (the Europeans, Japanese and Russians are partners). Whether it is worth the investment to date is unclear, but it is a sunk cost. The question is, what is it worth going forward? Whatever it is, the space agency is taking the position that it is not worth the risk of a human life. This is, to put it as gently as possible, insane.

Whenever a test pilot gets into a new airplane, he is risking his life in the service of developing a new technology. No one would ever consider not doing a test flight because a pilot might be lost, and that’s for an airplane program that might have cost a few million, not tens of billions. We risk soldiers’ lives every day in our wars overseas, and few rational people say that we shouldn’t go to war simply because soldiers might be killed. In a ship or a submarine, the crew are expected to sacrifice themselves to save the ship (e.g., by sealing themselves into a flooding compartment to prevent the whole vessel from being inundated), should it become necessary. Yet we are willing to risk the loss of a hundred-billion-dollar space station that was decades in the building (and create a hazard to the uninvolved on the ground), to not risk the lives of three astronauts, who knew the job was dangerous when they took it?

But wait — there’s more! The reason that they are considering de-crewing is because they are afraid that they won’t be able to trust their “lifeboat” (a misnomer for a vehicle that must evacuate ISS inhabitants all the way back to earth, as though the Titanic’s lifeboats were supposed to get the passengers all the way back to Southampton). Yet we have people at the South Pole who cannot leave the Amundsen-Scott station for much of the year, even when suffering a stroke. Why isn’t the National Science Foundation spending billions on an Emergency Crew Extraction Vehicle to ensure that Amundsen-Scott researchers can always get out in an emergency?

Because a) they don’t have the money for something so ridiculous and b) they’re sane.

There is something fundamentally, societally wrong with our national attitude toward spaceflight, and it is preventing us from opening up this frontier in any serious or affordable way.

If the ISS really has so little value that it is not worth risking lives for, then we should abandon and safely deorbit it now, so we stop wasting more billions going forward. If it is valuable, then let’s start treating it that way. If the astronauts aren’t willing to risk their lives for it (I’m sure they are) then we’ve had the wrong selection criteria for astronauts. But I don’t think that the astronauts are the problem. The politicians, both within and outside the agency, are. It’s just one more bit of evidence for my ongoing thesis — that space is not important.

[Wednesday morning update]

There’s a Congressional hearing on this subject today, but I’ll bet no one questions NASA’s judgment in even considering abandoning the ISS.