Though the verisimilitude of the special effects were groundbreaking, Gravity, the harrowing disaster blockbuster that opened recently, is unrealistically over the top in terms of the actual dangers that NASA astronauts currently face in low earth orbit. But it's a useful reminder that the high, and final, frontier is the harshest, most hazardous and most unforgiving one humanity has confronted since we first climbed down from the trees onto the African savanna.
Previous frontiers offered extremes of weather and unknown and often dangerous wild animals, and the means to get to them, by sea or others, were often hazardous in themselves. But at least the settlers had air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat using the technology of the time. In space, exposure of an unprotected human body to the environment kills not in days or hours, as in many hostile environments on earth, but in a brief few minutes. The radiation environment can be deadly in just a few hours and (as depicted in the movie) high-velocity collisions, even with tiny fragments, can have the energetic effect of artillery shells. Until we establish off-world production facilities, all food and water must be packed for the trip, and the air and human waste recycled, with little margin for error if the journey is far from Earth.
So it shouldn't be surprising that, between us and the Russians, we've lost a couple dozen people in our initial forays into space (mostly ours, in Shuttle flights, though we've sent a lot more). On the other hand, it could be argued that if we haven't lost more, it's because our ambitions have been so paltry. After all, in over half a century since the first (Russian) man flew into space, just a little over 500 earthlings, from any country, have followed him. That is, we've had a mere four-percent loss rate—trivial compared to exploring and opening previous frontiers. Magellan's pathfinding circumnavigation of the earth, after all, lost four of five ships and 85 percent of its crew. Meanwhile, the percentage of space travelers who actually went to another world is only two percent—half that of those lost—the rest never got beyond a couple hundred miles from the home planet.
This is because spaceflight doesn't seem to be about exploring, or opening frontiers, but rather, since the end of Apollo, about simply not killing anyone. After the penultimate Space Shuttle flight in 2011, Congressman Chakah Fattah (D-Penn) told NASA administrator Charles Bolden that he was "grateful that safety was your number-one priority for the crew." This comment implies, of course, that actually accomplishing anything in space is a lower priority. No frontier has ever been explored or opened by making safety the highest priority.
One of the reasons that many were so upset a decade ago when we lost the Shuttle Columbia and its crew was not necessarily because they died per se—thousands die in auto accidents every month. No, it was more likely because they died doing something seemingly trivial. One of the most publicized purposes of the flight was performing childrens' science-fair experiments in orbit. Had they been on their way (perhaps with other ships in an armada) to save the planet from a killer asteroid, the loss would have likely been viewed as much more acceptable.
But clearly, space is not important. Only one agency, the National Science Foundation, exceeded NASA in percentage of personnel deemed "non-essential" in the shutdown: 97 percent. This lack of importance of the mission allows the agency and Congress to obsess about safety, and to waste tens of billions on "big monster rockets" (as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida calls them) that it doesn't need to get beyond earth orbit. All this while failing to fund hardware that is needed for that more important purpose, and simply making the space agency a white-collar jobs program. Until we decide that NASA sending people into space actually has some value other than national prestige, and are willing to risk astronauts' lives to do it, the agency will be doomed to continue in its moribund state.
But the real danger of this irrational risk aversion isn't to government spaceflight, but to the more-promising commercial spaceflight industry. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act authorized the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for the first time, to regulate private space vehicles with crew and passengers. But wisely, Congress did not grant it authority to regulate the safety of the vehicle occupants themselves, restricting it to its traditional launch-licensing role of protecting the uninvolved public, per U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. Recognizing that this is a young industry, in which no one—government or private—understands best practices for affordable spaceflight safety, Congress placed an eight-year moratorium on such regulation, one that was extended last year until October 2015, two years from now.
Anticipating the upcoming end of the moratorium, and in an attempt to forestall congressional action, a few weeks ago the FAA released what they called "Draft Established Practices for Human Space Flight Occupant Safety," based on discussions they've been having with industry over the past several months. Unfortunately, such vague recommendations as "occupants shall have a reasonable chance of survival" in an emergency may not be sufficient. It was supposed to be discussed a couple of weeks ago by the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), but the meeting was canceled due to the government shut down.
Because no private passenger-carrying systems have flown yet (first flights for the leaders in the race to space, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, aren't expected until next year), and we haven't had the necessary operational experience to learn how to properly regulate them, the moratorium should be further extended, perhaps indefinitely, until it becomes clear that there is some kind of problem that such regulation would solve.
Both companies, and others that may enter the field, have ample incentive to not regularly kill their customers. If they do so, they're more likely to go out of business than to have their budgets increased (unlike NASA). The commercial spaceflight industry is simply too immature right now for a one-size-fits-all safety standard, with so many different types of untried vehicles. Had such a thing occurred in the twenties, when aviation was experimenting with a wide array of aircraft types, innovation would have been stifled, and unsafe concepts might have been set in stone, just as we flew the unreliable space shuttle for three decades. Instead, aviation regulations were gradually put in place over a period of decades as new ideas were tried, and lessons were learned.
Moreover, different people have different risk tolerances for different payoffs. It is important to allow spaceflight participants to continue to operate in an informed-consent regime, and to make their own assessments of danger versus reward, just as they do in other hazardous activities such as sky diving, free diving (which kills a couple percent a year), wing-suiting, and mountain climbing, none of which are regulated by the government. There is no reason that spaceflight should be any different, as long as the uninvolved public remains protected. If we are to open this harshest of frontiers, it is essential, and quintessentially American, that the pioneers be allowed to accept their own risks.