Safety shouldn’t be NASA’s top priority

It has been a century since the Panama Canal was completed. It was the greatest transportation project of its time, made possible only by new technologies such as dynamite. After Americans took over its construction, more than 5,000 died building the canal. That’s more fatalities than we had in the Iraq War.

Why was the project deemed worthy of expending so many lives? It is not because we didn’t value them. Casualties under American leadership of the project were a fraction of the deaths in previous efforts. It is because monumental achievements are at the edge of our human abilities and our best technologies. Nevertheless, such efforts are worth the cost.

In Panama, the sacrifice paid off, as travel distance (and time) for freight between the East and West Coasts fell from 14,000 to 6,000 miles. It also slashed the cost of shipping to Europe and Asia, resulting in rising economic growth and helping usher in a new age of globalization.

It’s just one example of the benefits of opening up new frontiers and trade routes; thousands died exploring and settling the New World half a millennium ago. Even at the time of the Panama Canal’s completion, crossing the Atlantic from Europe to America wasn’t yet “safe.” Fifteen hundred people died on the Titanic just the year before the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mingled in Panama in 1913.

At times, we seem to have forgotten. In the 21st century, do we still see exploring and opening up new territory as worth the expenditure of, or even the risk to, human life?

Somber anniversaries

This week sees a somber anniversary for NASA and the nation. Three, actually. Sunday was the 46th anniversary of the loss of three astronauts on the launch pad in the Apollo 1 fire, and Monday was the 27th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger with its crew of seven. Today marks 10 years since the Columbia was torn apart in the skies over northern Texas, scattering debris and the charred remains of seven astronauts over the plains of the Lone Star state.

Our shocked nation mourned the loss. As with the Challenger event 17 years earlier, the shuttle program was shut down, for two-and-a-half years, because it wasn’t “safe” enough. The program was ended in large part for that reason, with the last flight a year-and-a-half ago.

In the wake of the Columbia disaster, NASA started Ares 1, a new launcher program whose primary requirement was safety, spending billions until it was canceled in 2009. NASA was spending so much, in fact, that even though it was supposed to be a rocket to return to the moon, there was no money left for the landers and other hardware to actually land there, the part of the mission that happened to be the most dangerous. Not long ago, NASA considered abandoning the $100 billion International Space Station because its leaders were unwilling to risk a life.

“Safety” has, in fact, become NASA’s new watch word, encouraged by Congress. During testimony after the penultimate shuttle flight in 2011, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the ranking member on a House committee that funds NASA, congratulated the agency’s administrator for making safety his “No. 1 priority.”

Safety obsession

But should safety be NASA’s highest priority? If it is, then that means other things, such as actually accomplishing things in space, are a lower one.

The surest way to make sure our astronauts don’t die in space is to keep them on the ground. And indeed, that is more and more what we do, choosing robotic exploration over opening the frontier to humanity.

The obsession with safety is sincere, if unspoken, testimony to just how unimportant we consider the opening of that final and harshest of frontiers. The last time space was important was when we were racing the Soviets to the moon more than four decades ago. Now, we no longer consider it worth the risk. Had we taken such an attitude in Panama, no one would have turned the first shovel of dirt.

As NASA has dithered, private investors who understand the true scope of opportunity in space as well as the dangers are stepping up by investing in new ships, technologies and commercial ventures.

This sad week, perhaps the best way to honor the men and women who gave their lives would be to recognize that they did so willingly, and set forth a bold national frontier-opening policy, including recognizing that it has never happened without human bloodshed.

As John Shedd wrote last century, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”