Wednesday, July 27, 2005

To timidly go where a few hundred have gone before

NASA has announced that it is grounding the shuttle fleet until further notice. Despite their engineers concluing that there was "no significant problem" with Discovery, painstaking analysis by the shuttle crew, extensive video that shows nothing major, some brave NASA admin has apparently concluded that the fleet still needs to be grounded.

Have we really reached a point where we can only send people into space if the risks are equivalent to driving cross-country in the family sedan? It seems to me that explorers have throughout history been involved far greater risks for far less benefit. From 1921 to 1999, for example, 900 people climbed Mt. Everest while 150 died trying, giving climbers 1-in-6 odds of dying. Shuttle astronauts, on the other hand, face something like a 1-2% chance of dying. The odds of a soldier dying in a 1 year tour of duty in Iraq is about 0.1%, though the odds for a front line soldier, without the dilution of risk from including the various support troops, will likely be much higher. Is it really reasonable for NASA to blanche at allowing a handful of astronauts to take the sort of risk we ask soldiers to take?


Blogger Qian said...

I suspect most astronauts would find the personal risk acceptable, but for the NASA bureaucracy the political risk is far greater. Since the end of the Cold War, NASA has done a poor job of communicating what it is that we gain from the manned space program. I for one was far more excited by the Mars rovers than yet another shuttle mission to deliver pizza to the ISS. Given the enormous costs the ISS and the shuttle fleet, I think it is only right to question whether the resources and efforts might not be better spent on more deep space exploration, technological research and development, and doing science. We could certainly do with a replacement for the Hubble for starters. With so many worthy projects pursuing the finite dollars, another shuttle failure would certainly doom the whole fleet. With no shuttle to boost the ISS and no replacements in sight, the $100 billion station will fall to earth in one of the largest and most visible incinerations of tax dollars ever. So I can understand if NASA officials are a little pusillanimous.

I think it is important for man kind to continue to go to space, but not in the way we are doing today. There is a lot to be said for throwing out the legacy systems and starting fresh. The ISS has little chance of ever being completed, so its value as a research platform is probably minimal. Keeping the shuttles flying is just throwing good money after bad. Anyway, it looks like China is going to keep the near-Earth torch burning in the next few years. If we ever hope to get to Mars in this century, we need significant advances in materials, propulsion, construction, robotics, and who knows what else. Getting off the treadmill that we're on could actually free up enough money to do some new, exciting things again. Let's face it, people climbing Everest isn't exactly all over the nightly news any more (unless there's a lot of death). Even Sir Edmund Hilary says that people should give it a break for a while. That might also be good advice for NASA.

7/27/2005 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

The unfortunate thing about NASA is that it's very politically driven. After the last Shuttle incident, there was talk of designing a totally robotic mission to service Hubble, which is still very popular with the public. The problem is that the price tag is way too high, and Hubble is not so vital scientifically any more. Sure, there are some things Hubble can do that JWST won't be able to (or NGST to us old-timers), but thanks to massive advances in optical technology since Hubble was designed (most notably adaptive optics), ground-based optical astronomy would survive just fine even if HST were killed by a roving piece of space junk tomorrow. But throwing good money after it for short-term gain would ignore the longer-term costs. What programs would you have to kill or push back?

There really is no compelling reason for humans to be in space yet, and current technology makes it costly and risky to sustain a presence there just for the sake of doing so. Perhaps NASA would be better poised for the future if it seriously cut back manned missions and invested the money instead in scientific satellites, planetary probes, and research/engineering for a new generation of space vehicles.

7/27/2005 11:37:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree that NASA seems more concerned about avoiding another accident than advancing science. On the other hand, ultimately Congress and indirectly the public get to decide what they value more. And I think the NASA admins may be correct in interpretting the attidues of congress and the public.

The other point is that it's not the case that every dollar saved from not flying the shuttle would go to some other scientific cause. In the short term, there may be some shuffeling of money here and there to return the shuttle to flight or to repair hubble. But in the long term, the funding of other major scientific projects rests on their own merit and ability to communicate their importance to Congress/taxpayers.

Personally, I'm very supportive of two missions that are still several years out... SIM-Planetquest (to search for terrestrial mass planets in the habitable zone of nearby stars) and the Terrestrial Planet Finder-Coronagraph (to take pictures of those planetary systems and get optical spectra of those planets). I'd hate to see Hubble burn up, but I'd also hate to see a Hubble repair mission delay those very missions.

7/28/2005 08:43:00 PM  
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