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.


Emerging markets less risky than developed economies?

Paul Raven @ 22-11-2010

Via Global Dashboard, speculation that a pretty fundamental shift in global economics may be under way*:

… could the emerging world now be a destination for those looking for security? That is what the credit markets say. Either they are wrong and emerging market credit is in an incipient bubble, or we need to turn received wisdom on its head.

[…]

What is fascinating is the market’s comparative judgment of the risk in emerging markets. Insuring against a default in China is exactly as expensive as in the UK – 0.6 per cent. The list of countries deemed safer than Italy (1.82 per cent) includes Mexico, Brazil and Chile, Russia, and even Indonesia (1.39 per cent).

This relative judgment on the emerging world has completely reversed in the two years since the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy seemed likely to tip over into an emerging market debt crisis. Then, insuring against an Indonesian default cost 12.47 per cent.

Back then, emerging markets were victims of a “risk off” trade. Investors got out as quickly as they could. This time, in spite of no shortage of true panic about sovereign debt in the eurozone, investors are not responding by selling emerging market debt.

The obvious explanation is “it’s a bubble!”, but the article goes on to suggest that it’s the very lack of financial sophistication in developing economies that may make them safer – a lower likelihood of speculative trader voodoo taking down entire countries, for example.

… this is not just about avoiding the west; emerging markets have advantages. They do not have expensive welfare states, so it is easier to keep their fiscal houses in order. They have less heavily developed financial sectors and banks that for the most part did not go overboard in the way that they did in western Europe and the US. Ireland’s banking sector grew far too big for its government to be able to rescue it without pain. If you want to avoid such risks, put your money in places such as Indonesia and Brazil.

I’m no economist, of course, so I’m not going to call it either way, but I think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that the “developed” economies are actually overdeveloped, a dead-end branch of excessive complexity on the tree of economic evolution.

[ * That link will probably smoosh you straight into the FT’s paywall, but if you Google one of the paragraphs above and click the correct link from the search results, you’ll be able to read the article in full. ]


Karl Schroeder: one-way tickets to Mars are a cost issue, not a risk issue

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2009

exploding rocketWe’ve mentioned the one-way option for Mars missions here a few times recently, the latest being in response to the Krauss op-ed in the New York Times. Earning himself his second Futurismic mention in as many days, Karl Schroeder tears down the “poisonous meme” that claims the journey to Mars is too dangerous – the reality is that it’s too expensive.

The objections all sound reasonable:  too much radiation!  Too far away!  Zero gravity is too debilitating!  Too expensive!

All of these objections are true, while at the same time they’re all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons.  In fact they’re all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.

Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece.  What’s the solution to radiation?  Shielding.  Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult?  No, actually it’s easy.  Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system.  The problem is not the shielding; it’s the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.

Ditto for, oh, let’s say zero gravity.  No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft.  To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth.  The point is, the solution is easy.

Too far away?  If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions:  send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies.  Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.

That cost is, of course, the cost of old-school 1960s vintage chemical rocketry – $10,000 for every kilogram of stuff you want to get into orbit. Schroeder lists a number of alternatives, some of which you’ll have read about here or elsewhere: magnetic accelerators, laser propulsion launchers and so on… all with much lower to-orbit costs, all within the reach of NASA budgets – if they abandoned rocketry.

The question stands, though: given that NASA is well aware of its own budgetary problems, why is it clinging to such dated and inefficient methods? Is it for the prestige, the showiness, the rocket’s red glare? (You have to admit, a Space Shuttle launch is pretty impressive to watch… when it works.) [image by jurvetson]

But back to Schroeder:

Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it.  Once NASA–or more likely the private sector–finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy.  —I only fear that the meme of space’s inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it’s turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That would be a sad thing – to turn our backs on space, not because it was genuinely impossible, but because we’d allowed ourselves to be convinced that it was.


Caveat emptor: news reports from the Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing

C Sven Johnson @ 18-02-2009

Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect returns with more news from our very near future. You’ve heard of fabbing or 3D printing, right? Won’t it be amazing when anyone and everyone can become a designer – a web-based brave new world of commerce?

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Well, not necessarily. Sven looks at the disconnect between the old model of pre-corporate capitalism and the new model that a Fabrication-on-Demand industry will produce. In a nutshell: it’s the consumers who’ll run the greatest risks, without any of the safety nets provided by an up-to-date suite of intellectual property laws.

Continue reading “Caveat emptor: news reports from the Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing”


The future of banking

Tom James @ 01-10-2008

As the current financial crisis unfolds, I’ve been wondering how it will affect me as an individual in the future. Hamish McRae reckons it’ll be like it was in the sixties (but not in a good way 🙁 ):

It is easier in a way to see the situation in a year or two’s time than it is to call the detail of the next few weeks. What we can see is a world where it will be much more difficult to borrow money.

For those who can remember, it will be more like the 1950s and 1960s. Then, if you wanted a mortgage, you had to have built up a deposit in the building society or bank that might lend you the money.

People would open an account with two or three societies and stick as much money as they could in each so that if one would not give them the loan they could try another.

Other interesting speculations on the future of banking can be found in Casino Capitalism, on the BBC’s iPlayer service, available until the 5th of October. One conclusion from that programme is that banks will become more like utility companies, and the idea that banks can be innovative businesses in their own right is wrong – banks should provide basic financial services based on sound risk management (see below).

It’s worth listening to. Also if you haven’t read Charles Stross’ thoughts on the banking crisis, go do so:

…banking is the art and science of risk management. (You have a pot of money. You want to use it to get more money.

Do you lend it to person A, who you figure has a 25% chance of defaulting on the loan but is willing to pay you 1% per month in interest, or person B, who has a 1% chance of defaulting but can only pay you 0.5% per month?

If you picked person B, congratulations: you’re a good banker. If you picked A, you’d better hope there’s a government hand-out in your future.)

[image from Odalaigh on flickr]