Will human spaceflight ever be safe?

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2011

That’s the question being asked over at Space.com as the anniversaries of the Challenger and Columbia disasters draw near. The question is rhetorical: of course it’s bloody dangerous. Strapping oneself to a firework the size of a small office building in order to travel beyond the gravity well into an environment that’s as inimical to human life as can be imagined… you’d have to be pretty naive to imagine it could ever be otherwise, really. Statistically, though, it’s a lot safer than you might have thought:

NASA has launched 132 manned shuttle missions in the 30 years of the space shuttle program. The agency has lost two of them — Challenger and Columbia.

Russia’s Soyuz program has a similar failure rate, with two fatal accidents in just over 100 manned missions — though Soyuz hasn’t had a fatality in nearly 40 years.

The shuttle and Soyuz risks are thus in the same ballpark as the chances of dying while trying to climb Mount Everest. From 1922 to 2006, one out of every 49 people who undertook the climb ended up dying, O’Connor said.

2% risk of fatality… considering the prize on offer, I’d take that gamble without a second’s hesitation (though I freely admit I’d probably be terrified the whole time).

This question always reminds me of Stephen Baxter’s novels of the early noughties, which had a tendency to feature maverick can-do types embracing the risk of space flight as a means to an end… or rather a means to potentially averting a very nasty existential end for the entire species. Much as it’s an understandable reaction, I think the shuttle disasters were probably one of the biggest contributors to the fading-off of interest in the space program in the public mind (though that whole end-of-the-Cold-War thing certainly played a part as well; much like sports, the veneer of the glorious drive to explore covered up what was essentially a pissing contest between two superpowers, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of Freud can spot the clues a mile away). Political interest in space seems to be on the uptick again, though (possibly because funny-coloured people in far-away countries are getting close to taking some dusty trophies from the Western cabinet) – so how to balance that urge with our risk-obsessed culture?

As Baxter’s novels – and the public response to the recent suggestion of one-way manned missions to Mars – demonstrate, there’s no shortage of people who’d be willing to take the risk of dying in exchange for the chance to go into space, and the emerging commercial space outfits ill doubtless take a less political view of risk management if the ROI looks good. And as Karl Schroeder (among others) has repeatedly pointed out, the risks can be mitigated by investment in better technologies. Crossing the oceans was once the most risky undertaking a human society could imagine, as was powered flight, but now we do both without a second thought.

Human spaceflight could easily become as safe as commercial air travel, so long as we have to have the guts and will to take the risks involved with getting better at it.

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8 Responses to “Will human spaceflight ever be safe?”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    Strangely, there seems to be a number of TV series, Web series, and films coming out this year which directly reference space flight. I hope it means it’s coming back as an idea.

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    Last I checked, life has a 100% risk of fatality. If I could, I’d go for it in an instant.

  3. Daniel Casy says:

    One way manned mission to Mars? In an instant. Life, yes, 100% fatal. Safe? Well, there’s been fifteen deaths in the last year in this town of 2000, so… .75% chance of dying just because I live where I do… yeah, safe’s a relative term. And if I see my relatives then we’re not going to be safe…
    Dan.

  4. Apesofmath says:

    “Crossing the oceans was once the most risky undertaking a human society could imagine, as was powered flight, but now we do both without a second thought.”

    Yes, but there were and are very good reasons to cross the oceans and to make use of powered flight. I don’t see any good reasons to send meat bodies into space.

  5. LAG says:

    Excuse me? Why is that important? Name two things that are safe and how that improved things for humanity.

    Oh,and Apes, tell me when the teach two robots to breed and spit out a human. Then people will be able to stay home. Can you say planet-killer?

  6. Constance F. Iker says:

    If we (as a species) put as much effort/money/research into spaceflight, as we currently do military industrial complexes, then we should get a little further than our present solar system, I venture…

  7. Eurofighter says:

    ‘…and anyone with even a passing knowledge of Freud can spot the clues a mile away’

    Just so you know, knowledge of Freud gives you a grounding in psychology about as good as any pre-Socratic philosopher gives you accurate knowledge of the geography of the Earth (and it’s supposed flatness). Freud is included in modern psychology textbooks for mostly historical context, and has been largely discredited due to unscientific methodology and confirmation bias. 😉

  8. Apesofmath says:

    LAG, where exactly do you plan to place an independent and sustainable human colony? And where do you plan to get the resources for this? Go read Charlie Stross’ blog. He makes a pretty good argument against this kind of wishful thinking. IMO all human endeavors of the next 30 years should be sharply focused on how we can survive the next 100 w/o a devastating economic collapse, followed rapidly by a planet killing war. Off world colonies aren’t pragmatic. Reliance on renewable forms of energy and a stable zero growth economy are. We’re stuck at the bottom of this gravity well and escape fantasies are counterproductive.