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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 (#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

  • 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?

  • Re: worth! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chrisq (894406) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @06:42AM (#40654555)

    The British government actually makes a substantial amount of money off of the Royal family, not the other way around :p

    Rubbish - this is royalist propaganda based on assumptions that nobody would visit castles if there wasn't a royal family (in fact 8.5 million people visit the Louvre compared to 1.8 million visiting Windsor castle so there could be a substantial increase if it was fully open) and that all the fisheries, farms and businesses owned by the royal family would be completely unused.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:06AM (#40654649)

    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 safely to this day.

  • by pipatron (966506) <pipatron@gmail.com> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:21AM (#40654693) Homepage

    Would you do it if there was a 100% chance of the vessel rupturing a few minutes after takeoff? Probably not, that would be suicide without any gains.

    So NASA must spend some money to make sure that the mission succeeds, and that you stay alive long enough to collect useful data. Preferably to stay alive for the next mission too, because training a new guy might be more costly.

    Perhaps they could state that there is an N% chance of survival, then see who's willing to go up.

  • by LourensV (856614) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:20AM (#40654835)

    So it's a trade-off. How much must risk be reduced to make it possible to hire top quality astronauts? The claim of TFA is that less can be spent reducing risk.

    I agree with Zubrin in principle: in a rational world we'd accept a reasonable amount of risk, mourn the dead if and when they perish in our quest for knowledge, and keep exploring as long as the risk remained reasonable. But of course, our world is not rational.

    Back in the 1980's, NASA announced that with the Space Shuttle space travel was now perfectly safe, and to prove the point, they selected a female, good-looking, mother-of-two teacher, and invited the world to watch as they put her in the space craft and launched it. Challenger exploded and Christa McAuliffe and the other crewmembers died, with hundreds of millions watching on prime time television.

    It's difficult to put a monetary value on trust, and we don't know how NASA funding would have developed without the Challenger accident, but I think it's safe to say that NASA lost a good deal more than $350 million in that event, and that the consequences were much more severe than they would have been had the astronauts died in traffic accidents. Irrational as it is, the more public a (potential) death, the bigger the risk and the more expenses are warranted. And it doesn't get much more public than an exploding space craft.

    I think the only way forward for NASA is to loudly and publicly accept that space exploration is inherently dangerous, and that they were wrong in thinking that they could make it safe enough to fly school teachers. And then ask the astronauts how much risk they'd be willing to accept, and work accordingly. But in reality, I think the SLS needs to fail first, and then they'll either start from scratch and taking more risks, or leave crewed space flight to the private sector entirely. I'm not expecting too much from NASA in the coming decade.

  • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:23AM (#40654841) Journal
    Yikes. The Dutch did a similar cost / benefit calculation when planning the =http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_Works, 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 arisvega (1414195) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:40AM (#40655589)

    What the purpose of astronauts is these days?

    Disclaimer: I've met one- we were having lunch on the same table together, about two months ago.

    As he puts it, they are "nothing more than glorified lab managers"- his type, I guess, since he is not running any classified military errands. A crew of three working in shifts around the clock is needed to maintain the ISS ("glorified janitors"), and that leaves room for three more people for extra tasks. Typically, when no tourist visitors are present, the remaining three of the crew work on a 'regular' 8-hour shift, formally complete with days off (e.g. during weekends). Tasks mostly include running experiments on board for third parties and, in theory, once their shift is over they can retire.

    In practice, though, they do not get much free time since they do tend to feel a bit extra responsible for work, dedicating more time than it is asked for them to the experiments. Also, nobody on board misses an opportunity to get more hands-on experience on the interworkings of the ISS itself, since that can prove life-saving in case of an emergency. On top of that of course they need to excersize and, according to the one I met, the Russians are the best on maintaining their excersize routines, sometimes 3+ hours a day (also the smokers!)- other nationalities seem to not be prioritizing their work-out time much.

  • by tragedy (27079) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @01:34PM (#40656709)

    McAuliffe's schoolteacher status didn't contribute to the Challenger disaster.

    Mostly true, but at least a little arguable. The decision to launch Challenger, despite the low temperatures was heavily motivated by political pressure, and one of the reasons there was so much political pressure was because it was a high profile launch. The reason it was such a high-profile launch is because of the teacher in space publicity stunt. It's certainly possible that they might not have postponed the launch if it was a regular crew that wasn't so high-profile, but there's at least a reasonable argument that they might have postponed if everyone weren't so worried about losing the TV spot.

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