How Much Is an Astronaut’s Life Worth?

NASA’s irrational approach to risk undermines its mission and costs thousands of lives.

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. 

The attempted Hubble desertion demonstrates how a refusal to accept human risk has led to irresponsible conduct on the part of NASA’s leadership. The affair was such a wild dereliction of duty, in fact, that O’Keefe was eventually forced out and the shuttle mission completed by his replacement. But in its broad approach to human space exploration, NASA has been generally—if not so obviously—feckless. 

Put simply, when the agency takes some $4 billion in taxpayer money per year to fly humans into space, it really has to fly them there and put them to good use. That amount of money, if spent on ground-based life-saving efforts such as childhood vaccinations, swimming lessons, fire escape inspections, highway repairs, body armor for the troops, save (at the government average of $2 million per life) roughly 2,000 lives. This is the sacrifice that the nation makes so NASA can run a human spaceflight program. In the face of such sacrifice, real results are required.

The Long Way to Mars

Mars is key to humanity’s future in space. It is the closest planet that has the resources needed to support life and technological civilization. Its complexity uniquely demands the skills of human explorers, who will pave the way for human settlers. It is therefore the proper destination for NASA’s human spaceflight program, and the agency has publicly embraced it as such. But according to NASA, before the agency attempts such a mission, it must minimize the risk by conducting a variety of preparatory programs, including the now-ended shuttle program, the continuing space station program, a variety of robotic probes, a set of near-Earth asteroid expeditions, the construction of a lunar base, missions to the Martian moons, and an assortment of allegedly valuable orbital infrastructure projects and advanced propulsion systems. 

Discounting the probes, which don’t cost much and actually are quite useful, the rest of this agenda comes with a price tag on the order of $500 billion and a delay in mission accomplishment by half a century. NASA’s Apollo-era leadership wanted to send men to Mars by 1981. Their plan was canned in favor of the space shuttle, the space station, and an extended program of learning how to live and work in low Earth orbit before we venture further.

It would have been unquestionably risky to attempt a Mars mission in the 1980s, just as it was to reach for the Moon in the 1960s. But even if we ignore the fact that the multi-decade preparatory exercise adopted as an alternative to real space exploration has already cost the lives of 14 astronauts, and will almost certainly cost more as it drags on, the question must be asked: How rational is it to spend such huge sums to marginally reduce risk to the crew of the perpetually deferred Mars I?

Let’s do the math. It’s true that nearly anything we do in space will provide experience that will reduce risk to subsequent missions, but by how much? Suppose that by doing one of the aforementioned intermediate activities—say, running the space station program for another 10 years—we can increase the probability that the first expedition to Mars will succeed from 90 percent to 95 percent. Assume that the extended space station program costs $50 billion, that we disregard its own risk, and that the crew of the first Mars mission consists of five people. Cutting the risk to five people by 5 percent each is equivalent to saving 25 percent of one human life. At a cost of $50 billion, that would work out to $200 billion per life saved, a humanitarian effort 100,000 times less efficient than the average achieved by the Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, the space station program would entail considerable risk of its own, while tacking on an additional decade of delay in achievement of the primary mission. Such an approach makes no sense.

The Mission Comes First

The contrast between NASA’s current attitude toward risk and that of earlier explorers is stark. Neither Columbus nor Lewis and Clark would have imagined demanding 99.999 percent safety assurances as a precondition for their expeditions. Under such a standard, no human voyages of exploration would ever have been attempted. For those courageous souls who sought and found the paths that took our species from its ancestral home in the Kenyan Rift Valley to every continent and clime of the globe, it was enough that the game was worth the candle and that they had a fighting chance to win. 

During its Apollo days, NASA had a similar attitude because Apollo was mission driven. It was called into being by John F. Kennedy, a former torpedo boat commander, and the men who flew it—the younger brothers of those who had stormed beaches and machine gun nests to liberate Europe and Asia—were quite prepared to put their necks on the line to further the cause and expand the frontiers of freedom. It’s when the space program lacks a mission that it cannot bear risk. Instead, it (and we) can only recoil in horror at the spectacle of the Columbia crew—which included Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon, the pilot who led the daring raid that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear bomb factory—dying on a flight devoted to ant farms, recycled-urine-based finger paints, and other science fair experiments.

Should a true private entrepreneurial space sector emerge, its captains may take the same heroic stance as the great explorers did during the Age of Discovery, whose bold quests for gold, glory, and God gave so much to a sometimes ungrateful posterity. But speaking realistically, while SpaceX and its competitors may substantially reduce the costs of NASA’s exploration program, they remain vendors to that program. NASA supplies the funds and therefore calls the shots. This situation makes the question of risk a matter of public policy. 

So, am I saying that we should just bull ahead, regardless of the risk? No. What I am saying is that in space exploration, the top priority must not be human safety, but mission success. These sound like the same thing, but they are not. Let me explain the difference by means of an example.

Imagine you are the manager of a Mars robotic-rover program. You have a fixed budget and two options for how to spend it. The first option is to spend half the money on development and testing, the rest on manufacturing and flight operations. If you take this choice, you get two rovers, each with a 90 percent chance of success. The other option is to spend three-quarters of the budget on development and testing, leaving a quarter for the actual mission. If you do it this way, you get just one rover, but it has a success probability of 95 percent. Which option should you choose?

The right answer is to go for two rovers, because if you do it that way, you will have a 99 percent probability of succeeding with at least one of the vehicles and an 81 percent probability of getting two successful rovers—an outcome that is not even possible with the other approach. This being a robotic mission, with no lives at stake, that’s all clear enough. But if we were talking about a human mission, what would the right choice be? The correct answer would be the same, because with tens of billions of dollars that could be used instead to meet all kinds of other pressing human needs, the first obligation must be to get the job done. 

Of course, if the choice were between two missions that each had just a 10 percent success probability and one with a 90 percent chance, the correct answer would be different. The point is that there is a methodology, well established in other fields, that can help assess the rationality of risk reduction expenditures in the human spaceflight program. If NASA disagrees with the suggested assignment of $50 million for the life of an astronaut, it should come up with its own figure, substantiate it, and then subject its proposed plan of action to a quantitative cost-benefit analysis based on that assessment. But it needs to be a finite number, for to set an infinite value on the life of an astronaut is to set both the goals of the space exploration effort and the needs of the rest of humanity at naught.

This may seem like a harsh approach. But the many billions being spent on the human spaceflight program are not being spent for the safety of the astronauts; they could stay safe if they stayed home. The money is being spent to open the space frontier. Human spaceflight vehicles are not amusement park rides. They are daring ships of exploration that need to sail in harm’s way if they are to accomplish a mission critical to the human future. That mission needs to come first. 

Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society. An updated edition of his book The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must has just been published by The Free Press.

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  • KDN||

    Is it space week or something? Did I miss the memo?

  • ||

    The current issue is a space issue. These are articles from it.

  • CE||

    You missed Newt's speech. He will have a moon base by the end of his second term. An AMERICAN moon base.

  • Ice Nine||

    When did Peter Sellers start working for NASA?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    What's with all this space shit lately? Its really not that interesting. Reason goes through some really drawn out phases.

  • ||

    I've been reading the latest space-themed issue of Reason, and I haven't seen any mention of the Lunar Sex Prize, which is one of the more exciting programs for getting people back to the Moon.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Those astronauts must masturbate though. I mean come on, months at a time?

    Do you think they have actual circle jerks?

  • No fligging the dolphin!||

    Cum would get into the electronics and probably short something out, so no.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Simple solution: Condoms.

  • Muad Dib||

    It would start looking like a snow globe in there.

  • ||

    Well, I imagine they could come up with some sort of airlock.

  • ||

    Well, Newt wants a lunar colony by 2020.

    If he promises to emigrate there, will you vote for him?

  • ||

    Tempting offer. Throw in the name change, and yes, I'm in!

  • ||

    To the point of the article, I mostly agree. The astronauts themselves aren't anywhere near as risk averse as NASA has become. Space travel is dangerous, especially in this pioneering phase. Once we're talking commercial tourism, where near-total safety will be a necessary component, then something closer to zero tolerance for accidents can and should be the norm.

    Naturally, this doesn't mean that we don't try really danged hard to avoid losing people in space, and it really doesn't mean that negligence is acceptable.

  • ||

    If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid.

  • ||

    Think the Company worried about a few lives when trying to weaponize the xenomorphs? I think not.

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    Think the Crown cared about a few lives when trying to colonize the world? I think not.

  • rather||

  • ||

    I read somewhere (some SF writer's blog) that he can tell that we aren't serious about space because nobody is dying. When the 16th century Europeans were serious about exploration, sailors were dropping like flies.

  • ||

    And Christians aren't serious about religion because they're not burning heretics and torturing Jews.

  • ||

    The point being, that the average 1500s European, particularly in Spain and Portugal, was at constant risk of starvation if they stayed home too. Risking one's life for fame and fortune wasn't as big a deal back then.

  • ||

    The point is that societies are willing to take risks and absorb losses if there is an urgent need (winning a major war) or a big payoff (building the Panama Canal or the California Gold Rush).

    Putting big safety constraints on space exploration and development (whether government or private) indicates we don't consider the risks worthwhile (which might be okay)

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    Also, every generation has a few individuals who are willing to risk it all just for the thrill of it and a shot at the history books. I say we let them.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Pretty good argument.

    Hell, if someone can convince me they can send me to the moon with a reasonable amount of rations, I'll go and never come back at the risk of dying.

  • ||

    A big problem with commercial exploitation of space--besides the biggest problem, which is cost to orbit--is the very uncertain question about property rights.

  • rather||

    "Why? Because we insist that our astronauts be as safe as possible."

    Google unskilled workers employed to install space tiles on Challenger

  • Teaching Student||

    I think this is extremely interesting.

    I want to beg the question for consideration:

    What value do the Astronauts put on their own lives? Do they want to die? No, obviously not, however, are they willing to take the risk in order to achieve something great? How many astronauts died in the Apollo Missions? How many continued to enter the rockets even afterward?

  • Loki||

    3 died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire. And that was during a test, not even an actual launch. As for how they felt, I'll let Gus Grissom speak for himself:

    If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

    Ironically he said that in a interview before the fire when a reporter asked how he and the other 2 crewmembers felt about risking their lives.

  • bohica||

    Ironically he said that in a interview before the fire

    As opposed to an interview after the fire?

  • ||

    Please look up the meaning of "beg the question".

    /usage nazi.

  • rather||

    He isn't wrong; he is using the archaic definition:

    "Je t'en prie"...If you please; would you care too

  • JD the elder||

    What the fuck does that even mean? There is no "archaic definition" of "beg the question" under which the original usage was correct. "Beg the question" means "to assume something not in evidence". It doesn't mean anything else. (Admittedly, "beg the question" is itself not a very good modern translation of "petitio principii".)

  • rather||

    Perhaps you can start with comprehending 'modern usage'

  • ||

    No logic textbook lists "Beg the question" as a fallacy. That's just slang lazy people have come to use as a substitute for "petitio principii".

    What the slang term is supposed to represent is not at all clear when hearing it. In fact common sense would dictate that the usage you have such a problem with is in fact the correct useage just going by the words themselves without the context of knowing it's slang for a technical term.

    Your definition is also incorrect. What it actually means is to present an argument where the proof of a statement is essentially restating the premise itself in a different way. It's not assuming evidence, it's substituting your premise AS the evidence.

  • ||

    We learned a lot more about space in the decade after the Apollo program went dark than we did during the Apollo program. Why? Because we gave up the obsession with manned missions.

    With robotics and AI in the state they're in now, we have absolutely no need to send humans to the moon or Mars. One could argue that current AI isn't quite trustworthy enough to accomplish a mission to, say, Europa or another of Jupiter's moons, because the communication time would be so long, but it will get there eventually, and sending humans to such places would be an extremely difficult task in its own right.

  • CE||

    You're assuming the goal is to "learn about space". For some people the goal is to "put a human being on Mars, to prove we can do it."

  • The Big Ignore||


    Because there's no reason and no means?

  • Tonio||

    OK, the big policy decisions, ie going to the moon, have always been driven by the politicians, not the agency. NASA didn't go beyond LEO (with manned missions) after Apollo because Congress cut the funding.

    The Chinese want to fully join the big boys club, and the quickest, cheapest, most attainable "first" they can do (in space) is establish a lunar base.

  • ||

    Hopefully they construct their lunar bases more robustly than their inkjet printers. The signature Chinese "hold everything together with rubber bands and glue" isn't going to work on la luna.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Rubber bands would actually be quite efficient on the moon; no oxygen + 1/6th gravity.

  • Loki||

    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

    But remember those lives are mostly in the private sector. Government employees are worth a whole lot more, right? Especially the "mythic heroes" that are known as astronauts. Whatever.

  • Godfey||

    Interesting point. I'd be interested in knowing the actual difference in valuation--as per the government--on a government employee vs. a private citizen.

    If one exists, it shouldn't.

  • Tonio||

    The reason astronauts are so valuable is their training. Costs big bucks to train someone to be an astronaut, and not everyone qualifies, so, yeah, valuable.

  • Loki||

    True, and Zubrin mentioned that in the article, I was just being a snarky jerk for the fun of it.

    Re: Godfey: I doubt if there is a difference, again, snarky jerk. For fun.

  • ||

    The actual pilots are the only ones that are highly trained, and they weren't highly trained by NASA. They were trained by whatever organization they were a pilot for. NASA has no investment in that training and hence it's supposed value is irrelevant.

    Only the training NASA actually performs could be taken into account for any sort of value assesment of it's employees. They aren't investing all these millions and millions of dollars into training every astronaut, it's just not reality.

  • Godfey||

    Fascinating article! Screw the naysayers: I for one enjoy the breadth of the articles posted on Reason, applying libertarian principles to things I'd never really considered. Although I don't always agree with the assessment, I find Reason an immeasurably valuable contribution to the national dialogue.

    I love the recent "space" theme. Keep up the great work!

  • Godfey||

    One other thing, more specifically re: this article. The Chinese will NOT be as risk-averse as we have become. If we want to maintain our competitive advantage, we really need to stop treating our astronaut like the kid in "A Christmas Story". There are only so many protective layers we can install before the other kids can run circles around us.

  • ||

    The aircraft carrier Captain analogy is incorrect in one respect. It would never cross the Captain's mind to ask for volunteers. He would simply order drivers from his or a nearby ship to do the repairs.

    The divers volunteered for that risk when the enlisted in that MOS, just like Navy pilots volunteered for the risk of carrier landings, and astronauts signed up for the risk of riding a chemical rocket into space.

  • SFC B||

    It really would depend on the actual liklihood of survival and the severity of the fire. Leaders have an obligation to not pointlessly waste the lives of their charges. A scenario where the ship is doomed and a crew of volunteers have a miniscule chance of saving it through an act of incredible valor and heroism at great risk to life, I could see a commander decide it just isn't worth the risk to the lives of the crew. The commander is likely to face court martial whether the ship is saved or not. I'd rather face a court martial for losing a ship than for losing a ship and wasting lives in a hopeless effort to save it.

  • SFC B||

    It really would depend on the actual liklihood of survival and the severity of the fire. Leaders have an obligation to not pointlessly waste the lives of their charges. A scenario where the ship is doomed and a crew of volunteers have a miniscule chance of saving it through an act of incredible valor and heroism at great risk to life, I could see a commander decide it just isn't worth the risk to the lives of the crew. The commander is likely to face court martial whether the ship is saved or not. I'd rather face a court martial for losing a ship than for losing a ship and wasting lives in a hopeless effort to save it.

  • ||

    50 to 1 ain't bad odds. In the Infantry, Lieutenants and Sergeants give orders to their people to do stuff with far slimmer odds.

  • ||

    I have ordered people into the smoke-filled engine room on a nuclear-powered ship, and they went and did their duty. There was no question whatsoever about whether anyone was going to do it.

  • ||

    I've followed these orders because I volunteered for the job. But I could have kicked myself for volunteering.

  • CE||

    Wanna bet there would be any shortage of volunteers to be in the first crew to travel to Mars?

  • Tonio||

    Tulpa @ 11:28 and Godfey @ 11:27

    No, the Chinese are not risk-averse. They are also secretive about their space program, as were the Soviets. When we lost Apollo 1 on the pad, the whole world knew it. The Chinese keep a lid on their manned launches until after the fact.

    So, yeah, the quick and cheap approach can work if you only publicize your successes and bury (sorry) your failures.

    Also, they just have to get people to the moon, they can resupply them via unmanned spacecraft until they have crew return worked out.

  • ||

    NASA = Socialism for Republicans.

  • Tonio||

    Uh, no, "steve." Socialism is giving money to support people and expecting nothing in return (except, maybe, votes). Programs like NASA give money to people who produce a tangible product, like a space suit or a lunar lander. See the difference?

    Also republicans are not the same as libertarians. Thanks for stopping by, door's over there.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Hmm, state owned, controlled and funded corporation. Yeah, that's socialist.

  • Loki||

    The corporations are privately owned, so technically facism would be a more accurate description.

    FWIW the space program has devolved into a government jobs program and little more. And this is coming from someone who has worked as an engineer on the shuttle program as well as the constellation program.

    Actually most of the aerospace industry is just very expensive corporate wellfare. Most people who work in the aerospace industry are only a little better than wellfare mooches, we just get paid a whole lot more and actually produce something. How valuable that something is is debatable.

  • anonynmously anon||

    Right, I meant that NASA is essentially a government corporation. Though you're right about the companies that supply parts & logistics to NASA.

  • Muad Dib||

    Agreed, we in the aerospace industry cater primarily to one client: Uncle Sam.

    Again, what is the difference between a government employee who draws salary from taxdollars and a contractor that draws salary from the same pot? I would propose that the difference is NILL. i.e.Lockheed Martin, Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne, etc.

  • ||

    But you're inventing the need for that tangible product.

    Creating a false demand for goods for the sole purpose of providing work for people to do is one of the key components of socialism.

  • Tonio||

    Dan, the Apollo program was just one part of the cold war. It wasn't a jobs program just to create jobs - ditch digging and other WPA-type programs are much more cost-effective and socialistic.

    The point of the Apollo program was to one-up the Soviet Union, which we did there since they never got boots on the moon. Also, it was economic warfare since it forced them to try to keep up with us.

  • ||

    The intent of it is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if they meant it to be a jobs program.

    The reality is that there is no real market for parts for space shuttles and rockets. The reality is the collapse of the space programs and the industries propped up by them has been as obvious as the housing bubble collapse was to anybody that was paying attention.

    Other than launching satelittes, the demand for everything space related is fabricated by governments.

    Sorry but propping up industries that have no actual demand for their products other than the artificial demand created by useless government programs is textbook socialism.

  • ||

    It's a jobs program, which both parties participate in supporting. It's akin--and some of the players are the same--to the military industry.

  • ||

    Newt wants a lunar colony by 2020.

    I just heard that this morning.

    Good grief. The men with the butterfly nets should come and take him away any day now.

  • Tonio||

    Why, PB?

    Is the idea of a lunar colony crazy in itself, or is it just the timetable?

    I grudgingly accept that government funded manned space exploration is hard to justify under most versions of libertariansim, but the idea of a lunar colony by 2020 is not crazy. The Chinese will almost certainly be there by then.

  • anonynmously anon||

    They need more room for their ghost cities.

  • Just An Engineer||

    No they won't. China's stated goal is to put a man on the moon by 2025 and they're not on track to even accomplish that. Their space program is more of a propaganda campaign then an honest attempt to achieve their "goals". They're going to have to put in a lot more then they currently are if they want to get to the moon.

  • anonynmously anon||

    That's why they're building all of those ghost cities; it's for footage of their "lunar bases."

  • Tonio||

    OK, China claims to have done a successful manned flight, and I believe they just did (manned?) docking in LEO. That puts them roughly where we were in 1966. Three years after that we we had boots on the moon.

    Remember that the Chinese have the advantage of studying our successful Apollo program, perhaps even have blueprints. And they only have to get crew there, and keep them supplied, to have a base.

    Given their secrecy, etc, I suspect they plan to get there far earlier than 2025, but are allowing extra time for failures (worst case) or PR win if they get there earlier.

  • ||

    I just heard about that, and it sounds like he's also proposing a Lunar Territory Ordinance, where a colony with 13,000 or more people could apply for statehood. Pretty bold statement and an indication that he's willing to throw part of the Outer Space Treaty out with the wash. Which is a good thing, in my book, though some other parts of the treaty are needed (probably means negotiating a new treaty).

    It also shows that he's thinking of commercial and individual actors leading the charge more than government. Clearly up the property rights regime on the Moon and elsewhere would help that out quite a bit.

  • ||

    I agree with throwing out the Outer Space Treaty. Not sure what would replace it. "Finders - Keepers"?

  • ||

    I'd replace it with something keeping the weapons out of orbit part, which will keep everyone who isn't us or Russia from putting weapons in space.

  • ||

    IOf you're after Newt, you need a heavy-duty net. With a winch.

  • ||


  • ||

    How much is a publicly funded joyride worth*? Because that's what we're really talking about.

    *Zip, to me. Let them take up hang gliding if they feel the need for an adrenaline rush.

  • ||

    "What good are these newfangled airyplanes? What will they ever be good for, anyway?" PB, your kind of people have been around forever. They were on the dock protesting Columbus, they were on the airfield protesting Lindbergh, and they will be at the space port protesting the first interstellar flight.

  • ||

    Wasn't the thinking that Columbus had massively under calculated the distance to Asia and was likely to die in the middle of the Ocean. Some people think that the King and Queen expected Columbus to fail as they offered him a ridiculously large bonus. And I believe the Spanish government wasn't exactly rolling in money at the time.

    After the passing of much time, the savants of Spain, like their counterparts in Portugal, replied that Columbus had grossly underestimated the distance to Asia. They pronounced the idea impractical and advised their Royal Highnesses to pass on the proposed venture.


    About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, whom Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke after the Granada campaign, the monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made "Admiral of the Seas" and would receive a portion of all profits. The terms were unusually generous, but as his son Diego later wrote,[citation needed] the monarchs did not really expect him to return.

  • ||

    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.

    But all of those things "create jobs". In congressional districts!

  • Jerryskids||

    "That mission needs to come first."

    NASA's primary mission is to funnel tax dollars to NASA and NASA's contractors.

    You can substitute virtually any government agency for "NASA" without changing the truth of that statement.

  • ||

    Is the idea of a lunar colony crazy in itself

    Maybe you haven't heard, but WE'RE FUCKING BROKE.

    Spending billions (if not hundreds of billions) on what is indistinguishable from a pyramid-building scheme is not just crazy, it's criminally stupid.

  • ||

    Not that I disagree, but I think his point is that we're shelling out billions to accomplish nothing in terms of manned spaceflight, so maybe spending less and focusing more on opening up space for everyone makes more sense.

    Rand Simberg's piece in the latest issue of Reason touches on this--if NASA were more like its NACA predecessor, focusing on fostering growth and R&D in spaceflight, it would cost a whole lot less and probably be more effective.

    As a policy, it's better than most things that come out of his mouth. And in space, titties, however newcular, do not sag.

  • ||

    In space no one can hear you talk shit.

  • ||

    We spend about 3.6T ever year I think, we take in about 2.6T. If we ABOLISH 30% of the government (which wouldn't be that hard to do, we would have more than enough to go to the stars BEFORE this mud ball gets creamed by an asteroid.

  • Tonio||

    Reading comprehension fail, Brooksie. TFTL

  • Tonio||

    Specific examples: Flying to the moon on a chariot drawn by swans is crazy in itself. Building a lunar colony is not crazy in itself, but is crazy given that we're out of money.

    Please accept this remedial reading lesson as my gift to you.

  • ||

    But we NEED a pyramid. Right where Supreme Court Justice Breyer's house is. We would all benefit from admiring it so eminent domain should be no problem.

  • ||

    There's a reason all space programs have been doing since 1975 is maintaining the space station.

    They realized then that unless and until significant leaps forward were made in technology, they were at the limit of what they could do. There are still no viable means by which we could accomplish manned interstellar travel. The technology doesn't exist and it isn't on the horizon.

  • SFC B||

    Interstellar travel isn't on the horizon, but interplanetary is totally doable right this very second. It is just mind-boggingly expensive and requires accepting risk that career politicians aren't willing to accept.

  • ||

    Not really. Take mars for example. It's basically a year and a half round trip to get there and back just in flight time. We do not have the capability to keep a self sustained crew alive for that length of time.

  • ||

    We could colonize Mars.
    It has lots of water, and is not much colder than Earth. In theory it could also be terraformed, over a number of centuries, but physically it isn't impossible for people to live there now.

    It doesn't require interstellar travel to get there. Just energy. With fusion or nuclear, it's feasible to provide the heat and light needed to support a Martian base.

    It's doable, expensive, but we only need incremental technological improvements to bring the costs down, not technological breakthroughs.

  • ||

    It has lots of water, and is not much colder than Earth.

    The interior of Antarctica is 100x more hospitable than any place on Mars, and we don't have anything approaching a self-sustaining colony there. From the wiki:

    The surface gravity on Mars is 38% of that on Earth. It is not known if this is enough to prevent the health problems associated with weightlessness.[citation needed]
    Mars is much colder than Earth, with a mean surface temperature of −63 °C and a low of −140 °C. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was −89.2 °C, in Antarctica.
    There are no standing bodies of liquid water on the surface of Mars.
    Because Mars is farther from the Sun, the amount of solar energy reaching the upper atmosphere (the solar constant) is less than half of what reaches the Earth's upper atmosphere or the Moon's surface. However, the solar energy that reaches the surface of Mars is not impeded by a thick atmosphere like on Earth.
    Mars' orbit is more eccentric than Earth's, exacerbating temperature and solar constant variations.
    The atmospheric pressure on Mars is ~6 mbar, far below the Armstrong Limit (61.8 mbar) at which people can survive without pressure suits. Since terraforming cannot be expected as a near-term solution, habitable structures on Mars would need to be constructed with pressure vessels similar to spacecraft, capable of containing a pressure between a third and a whole bar.
    The Martian atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. Because of this, even with the reduced atmospheric pressure, the partial pressure of CO2 at the surface of Mars is some 15 times higher than on Earth. It also has significant levels of carbon monoxide.
    Mars has a very weak magnetosphere, so it deflects solar winds poorly.

  • ||

    All true, but I'm speaking relative to any other planets.

    You need pressure suits, but they don't have to be the vacuum suits used on EVAs. They can be thinner and more flexible.

    Mars gets less solar, but you can use nuclear.

    It's cold, but you can live underground and heat the place with nuclear.

    There's no liquid water on the surface, but there's lots of ice underground and you can mine it and melt (again, nuclear).

    38% gravity is better than zero.

    given the ability to use lighter, thinner pressure suits the ease of working on the surface and construction is much enhanced.

  • Tonio||

    Dan, it sounds like you're confusing interstellar travel (to other stars) with interplanetary travel (to other planets within out solar system). We're not at the point of doing either one of these, yet (sending humans, that is).

    Lunar colonization is totally doable now and is a necessary prelude to going to mars. Which isn't to justify doing this with government funds.

  • ||

    Actually not. The moon doesn't really have anything on it that we need to get to mars, and it would be much harder to build a base there. Once you get out of Earth's gravity well, Mars is only slightly more expensive to get to than the moon. Mars has water, more gravity, a 24.5 hour day, and at least some atmospheric pressure.

  • Jake||

    Agree Hazel! I bought Zubrin's "Case for Mars" and he makes a VERY compelling case in the book for how/why Mars is not only feasible, but potentially practical.

  • ||

    Sure lunar colonization is probably doable now. It's just pointless.

    There are no resources there. Everything the people there needed to live would have to be supplied from earth. There is also no use for the colony other than just to say you've colonized the moon.

    Sorry but I'm not twelve anymore. The government spending trillions of dollars on what amounts to bragging rights is not acceptable.

  • ||

    Once your achieve high orbit, you are halfway to anywhere else in the solar system.

    If NASA wanted to build an infrastructure to get civilian and government craft alike into space, they would be spending most of their time and money on projects like launch lasers and a space elevator. The equivalent of the interstate highway system.

    They don't even seem to be trying to justify their funds.

  • ||

    We need some serious advances in materials science before a space elevator is even constructible. Carbon nanotubes might be strong enough to make it work but it's by no means a safe bet.

    Comparing it to the IHS is daft. We already had been building roads and bridges for decades before it was constructed. It was just a matter of spending the money.

  • ||

    We actually probably have the materials right now, but we don't have the industrial capacity to manufacture them on that scale. Not yet.

  • CE||

    Google Project Icarus (and its precursor, Project Daedalus.) The technology for an interstellar mission isn't that far off.

  • ||

    Love the article on risk analysis - would be nice to see it applied to nuclear power. But it's pretty rare these days for the federal govt to use rational methods, unless by rational we mean "how best to profit the military-industrial complex". And that's what NASA was all about in its heyday during the Cold War - developing ICBM and satellite surveillance technology.

  • ||

    The fundamental problem with astronaut risk is the funerals. Politicians HATE to be photographed attending such events, and when they are on TV, it is infinitely worse. Politicians (at least, the current crop of elected ones) are inherently risk-averse, and funerals like this are very risky to their career paths.

  • ||

    The author said:

    "the agency [NASA] has been unable to send anyone else farther than low Earth orbit ever since."

    Not unable. Not funded by Congress - big difference. And Congress hasn't denied funding because they think NASA won't be safe either, since two Shuttle accidents disprove that point. The many President's and Congresses that have come and gone since we last visited the Moon have not had a reason to go back.

    Sure it would be neat, but would it be worth the money? The answer so far is no, and that's not likely to change without some sort of "National Imperative" like an asteroid threatening us or aliens detected.

  • ||

    It's worth it if we can send Newt to the moon, one-way.

  • ||

    One last comment. If the captain of that $5 billion aircraft carrier runs it aground, or into a pier, or otherwise damages it or if someone who works for him damages it, he can forget about ever making admiral. OTOH, if the pilot in charge of a B-2 bomber (~$2 billion each, I think) sees an unpleasant light come on, he punches out, has a general-alarm rescue mounted, and emerges a hero. Different military services have different traditions regarding risk.

  • Dave||

    This whole 'safety' thing is a great excuse to cover up that ordinary men didn't go to the moon, unmanned probes did.

  • CE||

    You're half right. They sure weren't ordinary men.

  • ||

    If the governments of Europe has this same squeamish attitude towards exploration in the 1500s we never would have gone to America, Australia, Africa, etc. Fortunately, private investors played a big part in exploration centuries earlier. That's what we need today. NASA should be immediately privatized.

  • Andrew McLean||

    The author makes a lot of sense. As they say, you gotta break a few eggs if you want to bake a cake! Perhaps in the future there'll be a way of accessing some of the resources up there and getting them back here cheaply.

    There's one thing though that I would correct the author on:

    "Should a true private entrepreneurial space sector emerge, its captains may take the same heroic stance as the great explorers did during the Age of Discovery, whose bold quests for gold, glory, and God gave so much to a sometimes ungrateful posterity."

    I recently read an article about Columbus, one of the quintessential explorers of the Age of Discovery, and it seems he was much closer to murderous and brutal than he was to heroic or bold.
    (see http://www.informationclearing.....e26564.htm)

    Any martian natives would be in for a very nasty surprise if a space-age Columbus landed there!

  • ||

    Another poor argument by Mr. Zubrin. NASA's lack of Apollo-like accomplishments stem from a lack of Apollo-like budgets. The emphasis on safety is the result of public outcry after accidents occur. NASA ends up "spending more and doing less" because our myopic government can't commit to anything for longer than a Representative's 2-year political life span; the start-stop approach we've taken lately really does burn money with nothing to show for it.


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