Mars Is Safe from NASA

 

The-MartianOver at USA Today, I have a column on the recent hit movie The Martian and contrast the attitudes in it to today’s real-life space agency:

Going back decades, one of the favorite, albeit mindless, phrases in policy on human spaceflight is “safety is the highest priority.” Then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin invoked it in 1996, on the 10th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. It has continued into the present, with recent repetition from current Administrator Charles Bolden and space committee leadership on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., and Donna Edwards, D-Md. It can be found in NASA training documents and was recently cited in the NASA authorization act.

In fact, this attitude keeps us dependent on the Russians for access to the International Space Station for our astronauts because of NASA’s time-consuming development processes to ensure that we never lose a crew.

The latest Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian, provides some interesting insights into the risk aversion that, despite NASA’s hype about the “Journey to Mars,” continues to confine the agency to low Earth orbit, as it has for more than four decades (spoilers ahead).

As I note in my book, when “safety is the highest priority,” everything else, including actually performing the mission, is assigned a lower one. When that phrase becomes codified into law, as it was in the most recent NASA authorization bill, if taken seriously, it essentially outlaws human spaceflight.

The attitude is indicative of the lack of importance we give to the opening of space to humanity, despite Congressional willingness to spend/waste billions on it each year (mostly because of the jobs it provides in the zip codes of the members of the space committees on the Hill). If we were serious about human expansion into space, that, not safety, would be the highest priority. As I conclude in the column, NASA won’t have to worry about the scenario in the book and film:

Due to risk aversion and the implied policy against sending humans beyond Earth orbit because of the “safety is the highest priority” mantra, NASA does not have to fear stranding an astronaut on another planet, because it will never send one.

Fortunately, others, such as Elon Musk, are more willing to accept risk, and are more likely to go than NASA and Congress. There is a beatitude that the meek will inherit the Earth. The rejoinder in the space community is that the bold will go to the stars. But there is nothing bold about today’s government space program, and until that changes, NASA will remain stuck in low Earth orbit.

I see no sign on the horizon that it will, in fact, change. Space hasn’t been important since Apollo, and absent a similar existential threat such as the one we faced in the Cold War, that demanded a space effort to counter it, it’s not likely to become so.

There are 19 comments.

  1. James Gawron Thatcher

    Rand,

    Maybe it’s a good thing. After all high tech is not the Obamite Administration’s long suit. Just imagine Josh Earnest trying to change the batteries in a flash light. He’d probably call NSF in for an expert opinion. What he is expert at is adjectives, adverbs and even an infinitive now and then. Nobody can parse like Josh. Why if Putin ever gets really testy Josh could just phrase him into oblivion.

    What do you mean risk averse. Josh bought the really big town house in DC. He’s a game guy.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #1
    • October 22, 2015, at 9:21 AM PDT
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  2. Johnny Dubya Inactive

    Hillary Clinton, in testimony today on Benghazi:

    Chris Stevens understood that diplomats must operate in many places where our soldiers do not, where there are no other boots on the ground and safety is far from guaranteed. In fact, he volunteered for just those assignments. He also understood we will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security and that we inevitably must accept a level of risk to protect our country and advance our interests and values.

    So: Diplomats know what they’re getting into, it’s a job with risks to life and limb, and we should accept the risks for the greater good.

    With regard to space exploration and astronauts, not so much.

    • #2
    • October 22, 2015, at 11:15 AM PDT
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  3. John Walker Contributor

    Hey, but look at that giant rocket with racing stripes on the solid rocket boosters!

    Of course, if it ever flies (which isn’t the way to bet), it’ll only be once every couple of years, but isn’t it big? With racing stripes!

    (Image credit: Artist’s conception of the Block I Space Launch System by NASA is in the public domain.)

    • #3
    • October 22, 2015, at 11:51 AM PDT
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  4. RightAngles Member

    Mr. Simberg, that was a good article. How frustrating this must be for you as an aerospace engineer. When I was little, my uncle worked at NASA. Like many Americans, I assumed we’d have colonies on Mars by now. I still can’t believe America dropped the ball on this.

    • #4
    • October 22, 2015, at 11:53 AM PDT
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  5. captainpower Inactive

    The book The Martian may have been science-fiction, but it was also fantasy. I can’t imagine the world being gripped by the drama of a man stranded on Mars, or CNN having a 30 minute nightly news broadcast about it. The book’s author must care deeply about space exploration, but I suspect most people don’t.

    Why should the average person desire more space flight?

    It seems so abstract, and didn’t we already do it enough?

    Is there a book or list somewhere of

    • 1) what we got out of the space race, and
    • 2) why we need to explore again?

    As someone who isn’t really all that into this, I would love to be persuaded by those more knowledgeable and passionate than I am.

    A quick google shows some answers to #1, but perhaps you might have some thoughts as well?

    As for #2, my outsider’s impression is a) it’s the final frontier, b) aliens and the meaning of life, c) side benefit of technological development (from #1)

    Has anyone ever tried to quantify the ROI on the space program?

    If the benefits redound to the public good and improve GDP and QOL, I would count that as a return.

    • #5
    • October 22, 2015, at 12:17 PM PDT
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  6. Frozen Chosen Inactive

    Political correctness, fear and a stifling bureaucracy are paralyzing our society. We are too soft to do the hard things and make the hard choices necessary to succeed. NASA is a prime example of this. It’s why our days of greatness are over.

    • #6
    • October 22, 2015, at 2:16 PM PDT
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  7. James Gawron Thatcher

    John Walker:Hey, but look at that giant rocket with racing stripes on the solid rocket boosters!

    Of course, if it ever flies (which isn’t the way to bet), it’ll only be once every couple of years, but isn’t it big? With racing stripes!

    (Image credit: Artist’s conception of the Block I Space Launch System by NASA is in the public domain.)

    John,

    She’s a beaut John. Too bad, all dressed up and no place to go.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #7
    • October 22, 2015, at 2:23 PM PDT
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  8. Rand Simberg Inactive
    Rand Simberg Post author

    That rocket is unnecessary, and far too costly, to be used for Mars. It’s a boondoggle.

    • #8
    • October 22, 2015, at 2:39 PM PDT
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  9. James Gawron Thatcher

    Rand Simberg:That rocket is unnecessary, and far too costly, to be used for Mars. It’s a boondoggle.

    Rand,

    It’s a low earth orbit space truck. OK Rand, what do you need to go to Mars (besides the imagination)?

    Here I’ll supply the background music. (I’m so helpful)

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
    • October 22, 2015, at 2:46 PM PDT
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  10. Rand Simberg Inactive
    Rand Simberg Post author

    It’s a low earth orbit space truck.

    No, it’s a jobs program, that will cost billions per flight if it ever flies.

    OK Rand, what do you need to go to Mars (besides the imagination)?

    I’m currently working on a Kickstarter project (that John helped fund) on that very subject.

    • #10
    • October 22, 2015, at 3:00 PM PDT
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  11. James Gawron Thatcher

    Rand Simberg:It’s a low earth orbit space truck.

    No, it’s a jobs program, that will cost billions per flight if it ever flies.

    OK Rand, what do you need to go to Mars (besides the imagination)?

    I’m currently working on a Kickstarter project (that John helped fund) on that very subject.

    Rand,

    Whoa!! Cool!!! Tell us more.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #11
    • October 22, 2015, at 3:04 PM PDT
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  12. Chris Campion Coolidge

    It’s been over for a while now, for NASA, and yes, the spending is mostly boondoggle spending for votes. When Barry made NASA an outreach program for self-loathing Muslims, well, why all the talk about rockets, anyway?

    • #12
    • October 22, 2015, at 5:05 PM PDT
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  13. RightAngles Member

    Chris Campion:

    When Barry made NASA an outreach program for self-loathing Muslims,

    Good grief. Thank God he’ll be gone soon. This reminded me of a joke going around during the Bush years:

    The Iraqi ambassador says to George Bush, “My son watches this show ‘StarTrek’ and in it there are Russians, Blacks, and Asians, but never any Arabs He is very upset. He doesn’t understand why there are never any Arabs in Star Trek.” President Bush laughs, leans toward the Iraqi, and whispers, “It’s because it takes place in the future.”

    • #13
    • October 22, 2015, at 5:18 PM PDT
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  14. Rand Simberg Inactive
    Rand Simberg Post author

    I wish that just once, I could have a space-policy thread in a conservative forum (where conservatives are supposed to care about the facts) without the ignorant comment “Obama made space policy an outreach to Muslims.” Sorry, but it never happened.

    • #14
    • October 22, 2015, at 6:22 PM PDT
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  15. aardo vozz Member

    Johnny Dubya:Hillary Clinton, in testimony today on Benghazi:

    Chris Stevens understood that diplomats must operate in many places where our soldiers do not, where there are no other boots on the ground and safety is far from guaranteed. In fact, he volunteered for just those assignments. He also understood we will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security and that we inevitably must accept a level of risk to protect our country and advance our interests and values.

    So: Diplomats know what they’re getting into, it’s a job with risks to life and limb, and we should accept the risks for the greater good.

    With regard to space exploration and astronauts, not so much.

    In a sick way this makes sense. Any manned space missions outside of low Earth orbit would be redundant: There is no need to go to Mars or anywhere else when our policy elites already seem to be on(or from) another planet

    • #15
    • October 22, 2015, at 6:43 PM PDT
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  16. Blue State Blues Member

    Rand Simberg:I wish that just once, I could have a space-policy thread in a conservative forum (where conservatives are supposed to care about the facts) without the ignorant comment “Obama made space policy an outreach to Muslims.” Sorry, but it never happened.

    I’m not sure I see your point. What never happened? Your own link acknowledges that Bolden made the perfectly absurd statement:

    [Obama] wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.

    It seems unlikely to me that Bolden would make something like that up. IMO, this statement deserves nothing but ridicule, whether or not it was implemented in earnest and quite apart from whatever else NASA may be accomplishing.

    • #16
    • October 24, 2015, at 9:35 PM PDT
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  17. Rand Simberg Inactive
    Rand Simberg Post author

    It seems unlikely to me that Bolden would make something like that up.

    Well, he pretty much did, to impress the rubes at Al Jazeera.

    IMO, this statement deserves nothing but ridicule, whether or not it was implemented in earnest and quite apart from whatever else NASA may be accomplishing.

    I gave it nothing but richly deserved ridicule. My problem is with so-called conservatives who ignorantly take it seriously (or pretend to), when it’s not happening and has never happened at all, other than that stupid statement. It seems to be a way of avoiding a serious policy discussion about what is actually happening in space, simply to score cheap political points against Obama. As one of the apparently few people who take space policy seriously, I get tired of it.

    • #17
    • October 25, 2015, at 9:51 AM PDT
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  18. Blue State Blues Member

    Bolden did a lot of damage to his and NASA’s credibility with that statement. I think a lot of people tuned out NASA altogether as unserious after that. If Obama never said any such thing, I give him credit. But I never heard the White House walk it back either.

    • #18
    • October 25, 2015, at 4:49 PM PDT
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  19. John Walker Contributor

    Blue State Blues: But I never heard the White House walk it back either.

    Yes, in fact, they did, in a statement by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, according to a Politifact article of 2014-03-12. Here are details with links.

    We have had a whole thread discussing this issue.

    • #19
    • October 25, 2015, at 4:58 PM PDT
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