NASA

What is an Astronaut's Life Worth?: An Interview with Robert Zubrin

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If all goes as planned, NASA's Curiosity rover will touch down on Martian soil late tonight. The mission is being partially billed as a step towards sending astronauts to the red planet. But as Robert Zubrin recently told ReasonTV, if NASA wants to explore other planets, they must first change their risk-adverse culture.

Here is the original text from the May 18, 2012 video:

"You're saying that you're going to give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you're basically saying an astronaut's life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars," says astronautical engineer and author Dr. Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin, the author of a popular and controversial article in Reason's space-centric February 2012 Special Issue, argues that the risk of losing one of the seven astronauts who repaired and rescued the Hubble Space Telescope was well worth it. "If you put this extreme value on the life of an astronaut…then you never fly, and you get a space agency which costs seventeen billion dollars a year and accomplishes nothing."

NASA's role, according to Zubrin, should be in the pursuit of ambitious missions such as "opening Mars to humanity," rather than a bloated, safety-obsessed bureaucracy. "The mission has to come first."

Runs about 3.50 minutes.

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Camera by Meredith Bragg and Josh Swain.

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  1. Where’s HAL when we need him?

  2. An astronaut’s life is worth the same as any other man that would put up a shoddily-built mailbox on a rural Ohio back road.

    1. Are you saying we should send you because your life is already forfeit for messing with Neil Fucking Armstrong’s property?

  3. Why not (coldly, perhaps) just consider the astronaut another cog in the machine? Its life is then worth the cost of its professional development, i.e., education and training. If you feel generous, include salary over the course of its career.

    1. Because NASA is a government agency and it is more important to save face and pander popular sentiment than it is to get results.

      In other words, dead astronauts make for bad press. Personally, I think we should just re-name private actors who volutarily and freely undertake this risk as pioneers. Everybody knows that pioneer is a high-risk undertaking.

      1. Weren’t the astronauts already private actors? I recall OJ Simpson had a spot on Capricorn One, the first Mars mission.

  4. NASA shouldn’t be doing anything. Private aerospace is where it’s at.

  5. Ahh, but safety obsessed bureaucracies create jobs.
    You’re not really spending that $4 billion to save lives, your actually spending it on jobs. Safety is just an excuse to put more people on the payroll.

    1. I don’t agree with the motivation.

      I am in the Army. We are, to put it mildy, obsessed with safety. Just absolutely bonkers about it.

      The reason is not so we can get more people on the payroll. The reason is that we are insulated from market forces, and we therefore lack the proper mechanisms and feedback for valuing human life. Additionally, the publicity factor is of considerable concern, because publicity and popular assent is the only currency in government agencies.

      A private security force that engages in an operation can project losses, including human losses, and assign a dollar value accordingly. Government agencies have a “priceless” value on lives and therefore are willing to expend disproportionate resources to avoid losing something “priceless”.

      1. Having unlimited funds helps too.

  6. I’d take 1:7 chance of death any day if it meant I got to do shit in space. Sign me the fuck up.

    1. THAT’S NOT YOUR DECISION TO MAKE. The guys in black rim glasses and short sleeve button downs while calculate that for you.

      1. Uh. Most of the guys in glasses and short-sleeved shirts (ie, engineers) are with anon. Its the manager types who don’t work hard enough to break a sweat and can therefore wear long-sleeved shirts who make dumbass decisions for us.

        1. Um, I saw Apollo 13 so I think I know a little something about that space agency.

  7. you get a space agency which costs seventeen billion dollars a year and accomplishes nothing.

    But- but- MULTIPLIER!

  8. And another thing, how come I can’t get no Tang ’round here?

    1. And another thing, how come I can’t get no Tang ’round here?

      Leave the rest of out of your personal life – your enforced virginity is of no concern to us.

  9. Crazy talk!

    Instead of combining farm policy, food stamps, telecommunications, energy, forestry and conservation into a single legislative vehicle, we must begin advancing one issue at a time. Even Americans with differing views on the role of the federal government in U.S. agriculture should agree that any farm bill passed by Congress be a farm-only bill. Only by breaking this massive bill into manageable, understandable pieces can we begin to make meaningful reforms.

    What next? Making Congress read the damn things?

    1. What next? Making Congress read the damn things?

      Yep. Test congresscreatures on the content of each bill before they are allowed to vote on it. Like SAT reading comprehension.

      “What is the main emphasis of Section X?”

      “How many agencies are created by this legislation?”

      “How this the requirement of Section Y funded?”

      I’m feeling good today, so I’ll allow the test to be open book. No take-homes though.

    2. Several states have gone to single issue bill writing. It would take, at the very least Congress to make a change to its own rules (not gunna happen) or a Constitutional amendemnt.

  10. Mitt Romney should respond to Harry Reid thusly:

    “I contributed X* million dollars to the United States Treasury last year. How much did you kick in?”

    *I believe George Will used “3” this morning. That’s a substantial contribution, regardless of the effective rate.

    1. I’ve been saying all along that Romney’s response to Obama on the tax thing should be, “I paid more in taxes in those 2 years I released than you’ve paid in your whole life. How is that not a ‘fair share'”?

  11. Slightly OT: I’m HRC and Banjos is Lutheran/Catholic. We’re thinking of converting to Armenian Orthodox (big group of them around here).

    Question: will we be able to bitch about our genocide, or is that right reserved to ethnic Armenians? It will have an effect on our decision.

    1. I don’t know, but if you convert to Judaism there’s a lot more historical tragedy to bitch about.

      1. We’re not rich enough.

        1. That’s because you haven’t converted to Judaism. By the way, we’ll need neck measurements for your Jew gold pouches.

    2. “Sloopyincanian”? Doesn’t work, dude.

    3. I’m googling HRC and getting Human Rights Campaign, which appears to be a front for the LGBT movement.

      So, I’m confused. And that’s before we get into the belief system of a “Lutheran/Catholic”.

      1. A near-redundancy; don’t spend too much time on it.

    4. Don’t know about Armenian Orthodox, but at most other Orthodox churches the booze flows freely at church functions, so you could do worse.

      1. Indeed. You know you’ve found the right place when it’s 3 am on a Sunday morning and there is a bottle of ouzo or vodka being passed around.

        I don’t know about Armenians but at the Greek church I went to there was some bitching about generally bad treatment of Serbs and Greeks coming from some of the more WASPy types.

        Always awkward when Bill Clinton came up in conversation.

    5. You should go Non-denominational

    6. It seems to me that coming to HnR for religious advice is like going to the Vatican for sex tips that don’t involve alter boys.

  12. We could have a completely feckless debate about how much the public sector should care about safety, or we could avoid the issue entirely by having the private sector do it.

  13. The question we should be asking is, “What was The Astronaut’s Wife worth?” Two hours of your time? I’m not so sure.

  14. We could have a completely feckless debate about how much the public sector should care about safety, or we could avoid the issue entirely by having the private sector do it.

    The Commerce Clause prohibits nongovernmental space exploration. It’s right there in black and white.

  15. We’re thinking of converting to Armenian Orthodox (big group of them around here).

    If the festivities don’t include peyote, why bother?

    1. Become one with the Thread, Brooksy!

  16. I think this is related to an issue we discussed the other day (about whether the Mercury astronauts needed to be the world’s best test pilots).

    I think the obsession with astronaut “quality”, safety, and training is a case where the scarcity of a thing is exaggerating its actual worth.

    There are only a relative handful of astronaut gigs to go around, so the bureaucracy layers a lot of extraneous requirements on to the position(s). I have little doubt that NASA sets the requirements higher than they actually have to be, performs a lot more training than is actually required, and invests more in safety than strictly makes sense – but it’s not just because it’s a government bureaucracy out of control, it’s because astronauts are so rare that people get carried away and treat them like peat bog sacrifices.

    1. The fact that there are so few astronaut jobs should actually make astronauts worth less.

      “Oh man, we lost 2 guys in that horrible freak accident. I guess we better take a look at these 15000 applications we have to replace them.”

  17. With today’s technology it should be no problem to fake a successful landing.

    1. But the technology for detecting fakes has also gotten much better.

  18. You’re saying that you’re going to give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you’re basically saying an astronaut’s life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars

    No, you’re not. If that calculation were relevant, anyone who buys insurance would be a dolt since the premium you pay is always way more than the expected value of the insured loss.

    With insurance, as with astronaut safety, you’re doing more than just making a wager on the expected value of the loss, you’re paying for peace of mind.

    1. If we set the value of “piece of mind” at, say 20% (I doubt most insurance companies have that kind of margin), then it still makes an astronaut worth $22B.

      1. It was a rough calculation, its within an order of magnitude, seems good enough to me.

        1. I had a math professor for a high level DE course declare “from this point on, all constants are equal to 1”.

          You probably would have been one of those students freaking out when he started dropping PI out of equations because it was equal to 1.

          1. If you do that when you have two independent constants in the same equation or system of equations, you’re going to get either meaningless, incorrect, or incomplete results, depending on what kind of DE you’re dealing with.

  19. And further, if we sent a manned mission to Mars with four astronauts in it, and it crashes and all of them are killed, that’s going to be the end of manned missions to Mars. It wouldn’t be like an airplane crash where you could point to the thousands of other flights that day that didn’t crash… there would be one data point in people’s minds.

    1. And further, if we sent a manned mission to Mars with four astronauts in it, and it crashes and all of them are killed, that’s going to be the end of manned missions to Mars.

      Right, but if overinvestment in safety is making human spaceflight more rare, it’s creating the very data point problem you are saying you need to fight.

      If people were in space all the time, when a few of them die it’s no big whoop. Witness the difference in public reaction between the first space shuttle to explode and the second space shuttle to explode.

    2. Just like the Challenger was the last space shuttle flight?

      1. Er, robc, it wasn’t the first shuttle flight. And it certainly wasn’t the first manned flight into earth orbit.

        My point is, if the first Mars mission winds up with a bunch of dead astronaughts in a can, that’s it.

        1. See my Apollo ONE comment below.

    3. Just like Apollo 1 ended that program.

      Too bad, I hear that had neat plans for Apollo 11.

  20. Here’s the thing Zubrin persistently fails to remember; publicly-financed manned space flight is, and always has been, unpopular. Oh, sure, you get a lot of oohs and aws at specific moments, and NASA itself is viewed positively in theory. But people aren’t in favor of spending public money on it.

    When there’s front-page news about the space program, the American people remember that space flight exists, which reminds them of their opposition to paying for it. Which means all things being equal, NASA making headlines is bad for NASA’s continued funding.

    Now, of course, NASA never makes front-page headlines for truly neutral news. The news must be either good or bad. If the news is good, the positives of the news itself can net a positive. But it only nets out mildly better than nobody remembering NASA exists. If the news is bad, on the other hand, it’s much, much worse than nobody remembering NASA exists.

    So NASA goes to great lengths to avoid bad publicity, like astronauts getting killed. Not because they value the lives of astronauts highly, but because a higher-risk approach will result in NASA ceasing to be funded. Zubrin’s advice, taken by NASA, will result in the nonexistence of NASA.

  21. I remember seeing a TED talk with Mike Rowe, narrator of “Deadliest Catch” (among many other things, of course). He said he was in the wheelhouse of a crab boat, 50 miles outside of Russian territorial waters, a 60-knot wind blowing and 30′ seas crashing over the bow…and the crew dropping and hauling pots below. Rowe looked at the captain (I’m almost sure it was Phil Harris) and said, “Cap’n…OSHA?”

    He said the cappy looked at him and said, “Son, I ain’t here to make you safe, I’m here to make you rich.”

    I think Zubrin is right, and we could go with a little more Phil Harris and a little less bureaucrat at NASA.

    1. Slightly misquoted…here’s the talk (FF to 13:00 for the segment):

      http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_….._jobs.html

  22. Is it not all about national pride ? If the Chinese had lost their astronauts in the recent space trip, then nationalists in other countries would have no doubt used this to show how poor Chinese technology is. I don’t think it really is about saving lives, look at Afghanistan, the US government does not want to admit defeat so it prefers to have soldiers being killed instead.

  23. Just once I’d like to see the landing craft go in with high res video cameras sending the live feed…. that would be cool.

  24. NASA’s role, according to Zubrin, should be in the pursuit of ambitious missions such as “opening Mars to humanity,” rather than a bloated, safety-obsessed bureaucracy. “The mission has to come first.”

  25. “You’re saying that you’re going to give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you’re basically saying an astronaut’s life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars,” says astronautical engineer and author Dr. Robert Zubrin.

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