If we could put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?
Starting with near zero space capability in 1961, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put men on our companion world in eight years. Yet despite vastly superior technology and hundreds of billions of dollars in subsequent spending, the agency has been unable to send anyone else farther than low Earth orbit ever since.
Why? Because we insist that our astronauts be as safe as possible.
Keeping astronauts safe merits significant expenditure. But how much? There is a potentially unlimited set of testing procedures, precursor missions, technological improvements, and other protective measures that could be implemented before allowing human beings to once again try flying to other worlds. Were we to adopt all of them, we would wind up with a human spaceflight program of infinite cost and zero accomplishment. In recent years, the trend has moved in precisely that direction, with NASA’s manned spaceflight effort spending more and more to accomplish less and less. If we are to achieve anything going forward, we have to find some way to strike a balance between human life and mission accomplishment.
What we need is a quantitative criterion to assess what constitutes a rational expenditure to avert astronaut risk. In plain English, we need to answer a basic question: How much is an astronaut’s life worth?
The Worth of an Astronaut
The life of an astronaut is intrinsically precious, but no more so than that of anyone else. Let’s therefore consider how much other government programs spend to save people’s lives. Based on data from hundreds of programs, policy analyst John D. Graham and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found in 1997 that the median cost for lifesaving expenditures and regulations by the U.S. government in the health care, residential, transportation, and occupational areas ranges from about $1 million to $3 million spent per life saved in today’s dollars. The only marked exception to this pattern occurs in the area of environmental health protection (such as the Superfund program) which costs about $200 million per life saved.
Graham and his colleagues call the latter kind of inefficiency “statistical murder,” since thousands of additional lives could be saved each year if the money were used more cost-effectively. To avoid such deadly waste, the Department of Transportation has a policy of rejecting any proposed safety expenditure that costs more than $3 million per life saved. That ceiling therefore may be taken as a high-end estimate for the value of an American’s life as defined by the U.S. government.
But astronauts are not just anyone. They are highly trained personnel in whom the government has invested tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure varies from astronaut to astronaut). Some, such as former fighter pilots, have received much more training than others. Let us therefore err on the high side and assign a value of $50 million per astronaut, including intrinsic worth and training.
Looking at the matter this way can provide some useful guidance for weighing risk against expenditure in the human spaceflight program. The issue is well illustrated by the case of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Hubble Deserters
In January 2004, Sean O’Keefe, then NASA’s administrator, announced that he was canceling the agency’s planned space shuttle mission to save, repair, and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, thereby sentencing the Hubble to death by equipment failure and eventual total destruction upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere due to orbital decay. According to O’Keefe, the February 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia showed how risky such telescope-maintenance flights were. As a responsible government official, he said, he could not authorize such a perilous venture.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a unique astronomical observatory that has made world-historic contributions to science, discovering, among other things, that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, indicating the existence of a previously unsuspected fundamental physical force. It also represents a cash investment of about $5 billion by American taxpayers.
To be conservative, let us assume that all the safety improvements undertaken after the Columbia accident accomplished absolutely nothing, so that the space shuttle’s reliability rate was still just the 98 percent demonstrated up until that time (123 successful flights out of 125). Based on the $50-million-per-astronaut value we arrived at above, the seven-person crew of the shuttle can be assigned a value of $350 million, to which we’ll add the replacement cost of the shuttle orbiter itself, around $3 billion. Proceeding with the mission—which would have extended Hubble’s life for another decade, yielding incalculable scientific knowledge—therefore would have posed a 2 percent risk of losing $3.35 billion, which implies a probabilistic loss of $67 million. Comparing that $67 million risk or insurance cost to Hubble’s $5 billion value, we can see that O’Keefe’s argument for abandoning Hubble was completely irrational.
Imagine that the captain of a $5 billion aircraft carrier let his ship sink rather than allow seven volunteers to attempt a repair, on the grounds that the odds favoring their survival were only 50 to 1. Such an officer would be court-martialed and regarded with universal contempt both by his brother officers and by society at large.