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NASA Space The Almighty Buck Science

What Is an Astronaut's Life Worth? 285

Posted by Soulskill
from the how-well-can-they-tap-dance dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Dr. Robert Zubrin has some interesting ideas about what it costs to have an astronaut on the payroll. He says if you’re going to 'give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you’re basically saying an astronaut’s life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars.' He wrote about the same subject earlier this year for Reason magazine, saying, 'Keeping astronauts safe merits significant expenditure. But how much? There is a potentially unlimited set of testing procedures, precursor missions, technological improvements, and other protective measures that could be implemented before allowing human beings to once again try flying to other worlds. Were we to adopt all of them, we would wind up with a human spaceflight program of infinite cost and zero accomplishment. In recent years, the trend has moved in precisely that direction, with NASA’s manned spaceflight effort spending more and more to accomplish less and less. If we are to achieve anything going forward, we have to find some way to strike a balance between human life and mission accomplishment.'"
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What Is an Astronaut's Life Worth?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:28AM (#40654329)

    As long as the kind of people you need keep queuing up to become astronauts, reduce costs. They are the ones whose asses are on the line, so if they're OK with it, do it.

    • by siddesu (698447)
      True, we should sell astronaut positions, not hire for them. And pray those who line up and buy them can do the job.
    • by ygslash (893445)

      Invest a higher proportion of the budget in two things:

      • More accurate risk assessment
      • Evaluating the quality of candidates, in terms of expected performance in all scenarios, when factoring in the effect of allowing candidates who tolerate higher risk

      With more information, you might be able to reach equilibrium at lower total cost.

      I'm skeptical about whether this would actually result in any significant cost reduction. But it's worth a try, I suppose.

      • by EdIII (1114411)

        So to bottom line your idea, and pretty much the idea of the whole summary, is that NASA needs red shirts. Got it :)

    • by arth1 (260657)

      As long as the kind of people you need keep queuing up to become astronauts, reduce costs. They are the ones whose asses are on the line, so if they're OK with it, do it.

      I hope you're joking. Sure, there are people lining up to become astronauts, but if you cut the pay, there would be fewer people lining up, and a risk that you might not get The Right Stuff.

      For certain positions, you don't just want someone "good enough" - you want someone who isn't limited by their training, but can push the envelope in a crisis.

      That said, an astronaut's life is worth around ... two bits. They're expected to lay down their lives if needs must, and accept the risks. But their compensatio

      • There are a few other issues. Astronaut training is expensive. The figure I saw was about $4m. Even if the astronaut is willing to work for free and there is an inexhaustible supply of potential replacements, the cost (and time) of getting a new applicant up to standard is significant. The other factor is PR. It's really really bad publicity if the public sees astronauts die in fireballs. The USSR worked around this by only admitting to successful missions: any that failed were never publicly announce
    • by LurkerXXX (667952) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @09:28AM (#40655177)

      It's not just the life of the astronaut. It's the vehicle and payload as well.

      I'm not sure what the various payloads travelling along with, but one of them, Hubble, cost ~$2.5 billion. You might be willing to spend significant amounts of cash to make sure it got into orbit safely, and maintained there, so that that investment wasn't wasted and you wouldn't have to start over from scratch. Ditto for the shuttle or whatever vehicle you are going to use if it's reusable. I think that alters the equation from "2.5 billion for an astronaut".

    • by rainmouse (1784278) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @09:35AM (#40655227)
      In the UK (this was about 8 years ago so values will have changed a bit) if there was a dangerous junction where there were a lot of road accidents, if the cost was greater than a three quarters of a million pounds to change the junction to something safer such as a roundabout, they would have to wait until somebody died before fixing it. Placing the value of life of a citizen clearly in that figure.
    • by Shoten (260439)

      This posting (and you) are missing an entire aspect of loss when an astronaut dies: funding. The days when a disaster would result in little more than the canonization of the fallen astronauts ended a long time ago; these days, disasters like a shuttle explosion result in congressional hearings, bad press, and talk on the Hill that questions the role and value of NASA as a whole. Maybe it costs less than 28 billion to replace the astronaut, but how much funding will you lose, over time, if your budget get

    • It costs a lot to create each astronaut. There are the early costs to the astronaut's family and to themself. There are the costs to society (public education, their residential share of overall national defense, other public expenses). And then there's the very large amount spent on turning a candidate into an astronaut, and ongoing expenses keeping them an astronaut. And then there's the loss to the astronaut's estate of all their future earnings, which can be substantial. Those expenses seem certainly in

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:28AM (#40654331)

    I recently saw a show on 'what if we were going to build hoover dam today', and while they touted all the new technology that would be used, and the safety measures that would prevent any loss of life (compared to the ~100 people who died building the dame), the estimated cost of the project grew by 10x, from around $10B in todays money to around $100B, and it would have taken an extra 10-20 years to build

    so this would put the value of each person's live at ~$9B

    zero tolerence of risk just doesn't work

    • by N1AK (864906) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:11AM (#40654479) Homepage
      100 lives and an extra $90 billion in cost is $0.9 billion a life. Personally I think that is still excessive but considerably less than you said.

      Avoiding any loss of life isn't always practical. At the same time ignoring loss of life isn't the correct solution. We could probably have built the dam cheaper with more deaths, would $2 billion in savings be worth another 100 lives? We could also have avoided a lot of the deaths for a comparatively low cost, if we could have saved 50 lives for the equivalent of $100,000 each wouldn't it be worth it? The 100 figure also ignores the workers who likely died due to carbon monoxide (around 50).

      The Burj Khalifa is a pretty impressive building and has one recorded death (there were probably two) but this doesn't cover suicide, heat exhaustion etc (equivalent to carbon monoxide poisoning at the damn I suppose) so it shows that big projects can get done without killing dozens of people.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        We also tend to overvalue the directly attributable deaths compared to the deaths that are only indirectly related. For example, if the Hoover Dam was built carefully and slowly, avoiding the 100 deaths during its construction but being completed 10-20 years later, then electricity is more expensive for those 10-20 years. A few million people consider whether to get air conditioning, a hundred thousand of them decide not to because it costs too much to run, and a handful of the elderly ones die of heatstr

    • by ultranova (717540) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:21AM (#40654501)

      zero tolerence of risk just doesn't work

      But quoting an unnamed person making a wild guess about a specific instance and drawing an absolute, generalized conclusion to be used for life-or-death decisions apparently does.

    • by vidarlo (134906) <> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:52AM (#40654577) Homepage

      so this would put the value of each person's live at ~$9B zero tolerence of risk just doesn't work

      As a mindset, I'm tempted to disagree. It works when used as a goal, because for every fatal accident, you will have a lot of near-fatal-accidents. Often it is trivial mistakes, and by investigating the near-accidents to find the cause, you can mitigate the risks. The norwegian oil industry has been working towards zero accidents for years, and is way safer than Gulf of Mexico. In Norway, we investigate those near-accidents to find the cause, and implement precautions to avoid it to happen again - potentially with a much more lethal outcome. I am aware this is not the same as zero risk tolerance; we are tolerating the risk, but aiming to reduce it as much as possible through targeted work.

      • by amiga3D (567632)

        We call it Risk Management here. You have to tolerate risk in order to get anything done, the idea is to balance risk against cost and goals.

    • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:23AM (#40654841) Journal
      Yikes. The Dutch did a similar cost / benefit calculation when planning the =, the system of dikes and storm gates protecting the lower lands. In this calculation, the value of a human life was set at €2.2M. The obvious solution for NASA is to hire cheaper Dutch astronauts...
  • by judhaz (1088917) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:37AM (#40654357)
    Let me be the first to come with a car analogy: What is a driver's life worth?
    • by Chrisq (894406) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:49AM (#40654409)

      Let me be the first to come with a car analogy: What is a driver's life worth?

      That is actually a very good analogy. At the time of the Apollo space program safety features in cars were largely seen as a waste of money, by both manufacturers and consumers - people all felt that they were great drivers so it wouldn't happen to them.

    • by mwvdlee (775178)

      Within the car analogy, the answer would be: "Whatever the driver thinks his life is worth".
      Since most astronauts aren't able to buy more safety themselves, this is pretty much where the analogy ends.

      • by azalin (67640)
        Weren't many safety features (like seat belts or helmets) made mandatory by law? Of course others were introduced because the buyers requested them. By the way, the same thing you mentioned, also holds true for professional drivers. They have to drive whatever their company considers the right vehicle for the job (within legal limits of course).

        Oh and to be completely of topic for a second: Was your .sig written by E L James? (Sorry, could resist)
        • There was a bit of a public outcry after a book was published, 'Unsafe at any Speed,' detailing all the dangers in cars of the time and the resistance of car manufacturers to improving safety. Governmental safety standards for cars followed the outcry.
    • by Krneki (1192201)

      Let me be the first to come with a car analogy: What is a driver's life worth?

      Not much, considering that Saab, one of the safest cars of all time, went bankrupt.

  • Forget NASA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by acehole (174372) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:40AM (#40654369) Homepage

    NASA is a shadow of its former self through no fault of its own. The political climate in the US of the last decade has been increasingly against funding things for the benefit of all. We've just ended up with an agency that has been dicking around in LEO for the better part of four decades with not that much to show for it. The russians aren't that much better for their own set of reasons.

    Private companies and China are the ones who are going to make the giant strides in the coming decades. The side benefit of China progressing in space is that it might arouse some half patriotic half paranoid 'reds under your beds' movement within the US to beat them at whatever they aim for that the US hasn't done.

    If after a decade, China said they were establishing a base on the moon would the US public have a renewal in the interest in progression in space or is it too far gone?

    • Only if we're at war.

      A recent talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson [] pointed this out.

    • by vakuona (788200) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:17AM (#40654679)

      Admittedly, it would be hilarious if the Chinese went to the moon and took down the flag that the Americans left on the moon, and presented it as proof that they were on the moon. That would certainly arouse Americans' appetite for space exploration.

    • Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward. The USA government for once is right to support the private space industry instead of throwing money at the old dinosaur. Anything NASA can do is peanuts compared to what competition will do once there is profit to be made in space. Just like with the Internet or anything else.

      • Yeah, I completely agree. This guy is talking about letting astronauts be "explorers" --- I strongly believe that's going to happen much more effectively with privately-funded astronauts from companies that have only share-holders to answer to, rather than the government that has an entire --- highly excitable, if the past is any indication --- country.

  • by lbarbato (410651) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @05:49AM (#40654405)

    This assumes NASA's #1 priority is manned spaceflight - a premise I do not accept.

    From New Horizons to Cassini and Messenger, the amount of non-manned spacecraft visiting Mercury, Saturn, and Pluto to expand our knowledge of the solar system in just this decade has been extensive. (Oh yeah, and the Mars rovers - the asteroid mission, etc. etc.)

    He is being a bit of a blowhard to say we've nothing to show for the money NASA has spent. [] [] [] []

    • Agreed; why's he so gung-ho when the main thing manned spaceflight does is get the public excited about funding...manned spaceflight. Unmanned spaceflight --- particularly as automation is just starting to get really exciting --- can deliver results at a significantly reduced cost.

      • Unmanned spaceflight is the ultimate test of everything from sensors to real time operating systems. It advances the state of the art. Putting astronauts on board could actually the pressure to produce 100% systems reliability because, hey, you can make in-flight repairs.
        • by Boghog (910236)
          The unattractive tradeoffs one is force to make (safety vs. accomplishments vs. costs) with manned spaceflight is very compelling argument for unmanned missions. Accomplish more at lower costs with no risk to human lives.
        • by arth1 (260657)

          Putting astronauts on board could actually the pressure

          And then they'd accidentally a space ship.
          Not good, nooo.

      • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:57AM (#40654609)
        Manned spaceflight isn't just a means to advance technology. It is a goal in itsself. For those of us who grew up on science fiction, manned spaceflight is the key to perhaps one day reaching the future we dream about and long for. Fiction gave us those dreams, and manned space exploration offers at least the possibility of seeing them realised in reality as well.
        • Hey, I got a physics degree because I wanted to be an astronaut, so I understand completely. And that's fine, if it's privatized. Otherwise, we have to ask, how much are your dreams worth to the entire United States?

          • by ultranova (717540)

            Otherwise, we have to ask, how much are your dreams worth to the entire United States?

            Potentially its entire existence, the next time a killer asteroid heads for Earth. An even ignoring that, there's China, India, and whatever aliens might be out there, all eager to establish their own empires in the sky and reduce the US into irrelevance.

            Not that manned spaceflight is likely to be the most effective way to go about it at the moment; basic research into propulsion, material science, self-sustaining biosphe

  • by Kjella (173770) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:42AM (#40654557) Homepage

    The only perfectly safe rocket is the one on the ground. As an astronaut you sit on top of what's practically a controlled explosion travelling thousands of miles per hour and where being slightly off course means you'll either crash and disintegrate or disappear into deep space with no hope of return. That said, I think the way SpaceX is going about it is the right way - build reliable rockets that are used for satellites and cargo, then put a human capsule in it. The #1 criteria for any human launch vehicle should be a proven track record, tighten all the tolerances a notch and increase the inspections so your manned flight isn't the one out of spec and let it fly. How should we land on other planets? The same way we've landed probes and if humans can't survive that then make a probe that lands like a human mission would.

    That said, a better question is if astronauts are cost effective anymore. Yes, people are quick to point out all the things humans could do that our current robots can not but with the budget of a human mission we could build more robots and make them more complex too. I don't think many people understand exactly the constraints probes and rovers operate under, for example Spirit and Opportunity has a power budget of about 0.6 kWh/day and has been down to under 0.1 kWh/day in winter. You'd need massive insulation which means a large, unmovable structure you can't leave and a power budget orders of magnitude higher just not to freeze to death. I doubt life on Mars would be very glamorous.

    • I don't think many people understand exactly the constraints probes and rovers operate under, for example Spirit and Opportunity has a power budget of about 0.6 kWh/day and has been down to under 0.1 kWh/day in winter.

      doesn't the new rover (msl) have an entire nuclear power generator inside it? it will not be affected by summer/winter, 2kW for 14 years. so i think all future manned missions will use nuclear power instead of shitty solar panels. and not worry about power anymore.

  • by q.kontinuum (676242) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:44AM (#40654561)

    It will always for each of us be possible to increase health / reduce health risk / get better treatment by spending additional money.
    You can always do some more checkup to identify a possible desease earlier, you can try to completely rely on "bio"-food. And there are probably cases where the health ensurance company has to decide if they spend millions to treat a complicated desease of a single patient or if they rather spent the millions treating hundreds of simpler cases, saving hundreds of lives.

    The decisions on how valuable a single live is has to be taken in many different places.

    The main problem is that discussions about the financial value of human live are not held in the open, because they are considered unethical for most people, but instead these decisions are taken in some backroom discussions where they are not supervised by the public.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    During the heydays of Cold War, the rule chief designer Korolev set for the soviet space programme was: three successful dummy / monkey "Vostok" launches in a row, before a human (Gagarin) gets into the capsule. After he died in 1966, the the USSR leadership relaxed testing requirements for the never generation "Soyuz" capsule and that resulted in the death of Komarov (Soyuz-1) and then the three member crew of Soyuz-11. After that big disaster, the russians learned the lesson and Soyuz continues to serve s

  • Oversimplified (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SwashbucklingCowboy (727629) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:42AM (#40654739)

    He says if you’re going to 'give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you’re basically saying an astronaut’s life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars.'

    Only if you ignore the other costs a disaster entails, e.g. fewer candidate astronauts, less qualified candidates, a perception of the program as being a failure which could end up in reduced funding, etc.

  • by excelsior_gr (969383) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:05AM (#40654789)

    If your astronauts bite the dust, so does your mission. If you start saving on safety measures and something goes wrong, it will probably mean that you will also lose the transport vehicle along with all the equipment that the astronauts were supposed to use/deploy on their mission. Killing the astronauts is merely a corollary, albeit a tragic one. If you rig everything up so that the mission can go on in case of e.g. just a life-support equipment malfunction, then you would surely be on the cheaper side if you sent an unmanned mission in the first place.

    Besides, I can surely imagine that the life of an astronaut is worth a lot of money, even if we neglect the value of human life per se. The life of an astronaut on the ground is worth, I would say, as much as his education and training, which is probably the most expensive a human being can receive in our culture. The life of an astronaut in space is all that, plus every dollar spent to manufacture every bit of equipment that he/she is carrying with him/her, because if he/she dies during the mission all that will just be a pile of junk in space. To that you may also want to add the cost of the next mission that will be sent to do what the first one didn't manage. And if you are still so stubborn and choose the cheapo life-support system to save a few bucks (compared to the total cost), you will have to factor in the cost of the next mission, and the next, and the next... In the end all that matters is "we spent X billion $ to manage Y". The more missions you spend on trying, the higher X will be.

    In another tone, I don't really understand why it "doesn't count" to send unmanned missions in our stead. To the people that say that "we haven't been on mars", I just reply, "I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords".

  • That's the wrong question. The correct question is: How much is the bad PR from an avoidable accident that kills an astronaut worth? Especially when you're funding comes from the public.
  • ...just introspect a bit for your answer: put a pricetag on the utilities you are consuming and the systems that keep you safe and sound, and weight them against mankind's benifit from your research.

    Then, do the same for the rest of the humans, and for your family, if you have any- it shouldn't be hard because apparently everything is taggable with a price, using your methods.

    In that way, you can get a pricetag for everybody's life, do more statistics, and find your answer there somewhere.


  • ...that a human life can be so easily monetised. OK, these guys know what they're getting into, that there's a very real risk of something failing spectacularly, and of them dying. That's what they get paid for. However, that should not be reflected in the equipment they're being asked to use. Built by the lowest bidder? I'd want something with a track record of *not* failing; there's a reason why greymarket goods are so cheap. They *do* fail.

  • Space age or no, the natural modes of our organizations revolve around one or two basic primate behaviors, and tend to gather momentum over time. The only fix is to fire everyone (especially management) and start over.
  • In the first place, an astronaut's life could well be worth a billion once you factor in how difficult it is to find one who passes the requirements, and how expensive the training is. Then factor in benefits to their dependents, etc., etc.
    However, you're dealing with consequences beyond just an astronaut or a team having to be replaced. Every fatality reflects on the entire field of space research in the public eye, and they're the ones paying for it. The backlash from an incident like Columbia will cause

  • ..when confronting factual errors, like the O-rings failure at the Challenger disaster - they actually *knew* that there was an immediate risk - where they ignore it for a much less amount of cost. If they let the scientists and engineers that were involved with the astronauts do the risk/cost management I'm sure we get the most result and the least risk for the cost.
  • by goodmanj (234846) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:01AM (#40655723)

    Those billions aren't being spent to save an astronaut's life. They're being spent to save face. Space missions that kill astronauts are politically deadly, putting NASA itself at risk, and reflect poorly on the U.S. as a whole. NASA and Congress are willing to spend tons of money to avoid that embarrassment: the astronaut's life is almost incidental.

    Some here have asked whether a space program that spends so much money on safety that it can't get off the ground is a good idea. From NASA's perspective, and especially Congress's, the answer to that is an emphatic "yes".

  • by couchslug (175151) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @11:02AM (#40655727)

    We have thousands of years to explore space, which is best done by the robots we MUST have to interact with the utterly hostile off-world environment.

    We need better robots on Earth even more than we need a space program.

    The idea of meat tourists is exciting, and they can pay their own way.

    Actual exploration can be done remotely and should because the manned tourist program sucks resources we could use to get much more exploration accomplished.

    Just as the only reason to send humans to the bottom of the ocean instead of ROVs is personal amusement, so the only reason to send humans to space before robots are perfected is personal amusement.

    When wooden ships and iron men were expendable, lost ships anddead crew were accepted.

    Now, crew make manned systems monstrously expensive and economies of scale can't happen at our primitive level of supporting technologies. People are a burden, like it or not. They don't need to go early. That's doing it the hard way, and it's dumb.

Do you suffer painful illumination? -- Isaac Newton, "Optics"