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.


To obey Asimov’s First Law effectively, we must first break it

Paul Raven @ 14-10-2010

In the labs of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, researchers are forcing machines to inflict discomfort on humans. But it’s all in a good cause, you see – in order to ensure that robots don’t harm humans by accident, you have to assess what level of harm is unacceptable.

Borut Povše […] has persuaded six male colleagues to let a powerful industrial robot repeatedly strike them on the arm, to assess human-robot pain thresholds.

It’s not because he thinks the first law of robotics is too constraining to be of any practical use, but rather to help future robots adhere to the rule. “Even robots designed to Asimov’s laws can collide with people. We are trying to make sure that when they do, the collision is not too powerful,” Povše says. “We are taking the first steps to defining the limits of the speed and acceleration of robots, and the ideal size and shape of the tools they use, so they can safely interact with humans.”

Povše and his colleagues borrowed a small production-line robot made by Japanese technology firm Epson and normally used for assembling systems such as coffee vending machines. They programmed the robot arm to move towards a point in mid-air already occupied by a volunteer’s outstretched forearm, so the robot would push the human out of the way. Each volunteer was struck 18 times at different impact energies, with the robot arm fitted with one of two tools – one blunt and round, and one sharper.

[…]

The team will continue their tests using an artificial human arm to model the physical effects of far more severe collisions. Ultimately, the idea is to cap the speed a robot should move at when it senses a nearby human, to avoid hurting them.

I can sympathise with what they’re trying to achieve here, but it strikes me (arf!) as a rather bizarre methodology. If I were more cynical than I am*, I might even suggest that this is something of a non-story dolled up to attract geek-demographic clickthrough…

… in which case, I guess it succeeded. Fie, but complicity weighs heavy upon me this day, my liege!

[ * Lucky I’m not cynical, eh? Eh? ]


Computers react before humans have a clue

Edward Willett @ 18-09-2008

800px-Japanese_car_accident SF stories involving artificial intelligences often play up the fact that a computer-based intelligence would find human thought processes glacially slow in comparison to its own.

But you don’t have to dip into speculation about the future of computing to see that. The Australian newspaper The Age points out that although “survivors of serious car crashes often say time appears to slow down in the moments around the impact and that they can recall the event in extraordinary detail,” in reality, “the crash is often over before the human brain has registered the incident, and it’s only by later replaying it in their minds that crash victims achieve such vivid recollections.” (Via Instapundit.)

Accompanying the story is this anatomy of a crash which makes their point:

All over in the blink of an eye

This is a reconstruction of a crash involving a stationary Ford Falcon XT sedan being struck in the driver’s door by another vehicle travelling at 50 km/h.

One millisecond equals 1/1000th of a second.

0 milliseconds – An external object touches the driver’s door.

1 ms – The car’s door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.

2 ms – An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.

2.5 ms – A sensor in the car’s centre detects crash vibrations.

5 ms – Car’s crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.

6.5 ms – Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.

7 ms – Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.

8 ms – Computer sends a “fire” signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.

8.5 ms – Side airbag system fires.

15 ms – Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.

17 ms – Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load.
Airbag covers occupant’s chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.

20 ms – Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant’s chest away from the impact.

27 ms – Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A “pusher block” in the seat moves occupant’s pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.

30 ms – The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.

45 ms – Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.

50 ms – Crash computer unlocks car’s doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.

70 ms – Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.
Engineers classify crash as “complete”.

150-300 ms – Occupant becomes aware of collision.

So if the Singularity every arrives, does this mean it will all be over before humans even notice it’s begun?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]automobiles, safety, computers, artificial intelligence[/tags]


Uncrashable cars…and one that definitely isn’t

Edward Willett @ 18-04-2008

Uncrashable Car graphic “Uncrashable” cars are the long-term promise of the largest road safety research project ever launched in Europe (Via Science Daily):

A truck exits suddenly from a side road, directly into your lane only dozens of metres ahead. Suddenly, your car issues a warning, starts applying the brakes and attempts to take evasive action. Realising impact is unavoidable; in-car safety systems pre-tension the safety belts and arm the airbag, timing its release to the second before impact.

The research project, called PReVENT, has 56 partners and a budget of more than €50 million, and it’s main focus is on relatively cheap and simple technologies like parking sensors and satellite navigation that can be adapted to enhance safety, but some of the more experimental systems being studied in some of its sub-projects, with catchy names like WILLWARN (which uses wireless communication with other vehicles to alert drivers about potentially dangerous situations), LATERALSAFE (which uses active sensing to eliminate the dangers of the blind spot) and COMPOSE, which can automatically brake if a pedestrian steps onto the road, or extend the bumper and raise the hood to keep occupants safer.

Some of these technologies could start to show up on cars within just a few years’ time. (Image: PReVENT.)

North American Eagle If, on the other hand, the idea of an uncrashable car somehow takes all the fun out of driving for you, you might want to follow up on this lead (Times Online via Gizmodo):

Are you fearless? Do you have razor-sharp reactions and the sponsor-friendly good looks of a young Robert Redford? Think you’ve got what it takes to drive a supersonic jet car at speeds of more than 800mph?

If so, you might be just the man (or woman) to take the wheel of the North American Eagle, a 42,500bhp jet car with everything it takes to smash the land speed record, says its maker, except one thing – a driver.

Last week the team behind a joint American-Canadian attempt to win the world record back from the British launched an open contest to find that person.

Read more about the team here, then send a 400-word e-mail listing your credentials and a photo of yourself to landspeedracing@gmail.com.

Tell ’em Futurismic sent you. (Image: landspeed.com.)

[tags]transportation, automobiles, safety[/tags]