Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Space Travel, Safety, Risk Avoidance

NASA's in talks with four different companies to make a "space taxi" that will take crews to the International Space Station (and potentially to any future government or commercial stations).

This quote from Jonathan McDowell, though, is telling: "Before NASA can sign the contract, companies have to test the emergency abort system because you need something which can step in if the launch rocket goes bad and avoid the danger of killing the astronauts."

You will never be able to "avoid the danger of killing the astronauts." Reduce it, yes, and I'm all for safety measures, but space travel is not safe. Astronauts know it. The Mars One volunteers, who don't intend to return, embrace it.

For all we've done on the matter, commercial air travel is not 100% safe. It is safer than driving, but accidents still happen - take the Southwest plane that only yesterday landed at the wrong airport and came very close to tumbling down an embankment onto a busy highway. In 2013, there were ten crashes involving commercial cargo or passenger planes that resulted in fatalities. Yes, flying is very safe, but it is clearly not 100% safe.

There's a bad culture in NASA that says their astronauts need to be 100% safe. It's about publicity. It's about the fact that space travel is not quite routine yet...and even if it was, a space accident is still news just as a plane crash is still news.

So, "reduce" not "avoid." Don't try for 100% safe, because you'll never reach it. Our society keeps trying for it and I fear we lose something important in the attempt.