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NASA Space The Almighty Buck Science

What Is an Astronaut's Life Worth? 285

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 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 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. [] [] [] []

  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Re: worth! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Patch86 ( 1465427 ) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:07AM (#40654653)

    Royalist hogwash. That's usually based on the fact that the "Crown Estate" brings in revenue for the government, only a smallish fraction of which is given to the Royals. But it's a fact of history that George III gave that all income and debt from the Crown Estate to Parliament in exchange for Parliament also taking over the funding of the military and civil government, which was previously funded by the monarch out of his Crown Estate income.

    Seeing as the cost of civil government and the military far exceeds what the Crown Estate makes, it's nuts to say that we make money out of the Royals. That's counting the income and not counting the outgoings.

  • by ygslash ( 893445 ) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:19AM (#40654687) Journal

    I'd got through all that training and go up and risk my life for free.

    Would you do it if it were 100% certain that you would be immediately killed without accomplishing anything? I doubt it. And if you would, then you are so insane that you are worthless as an astronaut.

    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.

    There is already serious risk involved. So my gut feeling is that you can't reduce it much. But if NASA hasn't already done so, I agree that it would be worth spending some money to get a science-based estimate of how much risk is really tolerable.

  • 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".

  • by causality ( 777677 ) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:49AM (#40654963)

    Back in the 1980's, NASA announced that with the Space Shuttle space travel was now perfectly safe

    Sorry but they shouldn't let dumbasses make public proclamations simply because they sound good. It leads to the kind of disappointment you mention. Look at the number of traffic injuries and fatalities. We can't even make it perfectly safe to get groceries. To proclaim space travel perfectly safe is ridiculous and no thinking person would have believed it. It's shameful to see this kind of feel-good propaganda coming from an agency that performs so much hard science.

    Anybody remember being a little kid and regarding astronauts with awe and wonder? They were like heroes who explored the greatest frontier imaginable. It was understood that they took risks. They were like fighter pilots except even more badass than that. Space travel was about two things: knowledge and plain ol' balls. I remember being little and thinking that if they can go to the moon years before I was born, imagine what they'll be able to do by the time I'm an adult!

    The answer? Absolutely nothing. Sure, there's the ISS but NASA is stagnant and has been for a while now. The ISS isn't new and interesting the way going to Mars or creating a lunar base would be. When did we get so worried about risk that we don't try anything anymore? We send people who are barely considered adults to die for no good reason in the Middle East and we can't send people into space for similar (if not lower) cost? Something's fucked up in this picture.

  • 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".

  • Re: worth! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @10:08AM (#40655405)

    in fact 8.5 million people visit the Louvre compared to 1.8 million visiting Windsor castle

    And you don't think this anything to do with the fact the Louvre is full of, oh, I dunno, FAMOUS ART?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:27PM (#40658943)

    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 heatstroke during the next hot summer. Or a hospital loses power in a brown-out, and life-saving surgery is delayed until the lights come back on, by which time it's too late. These are very low-probability effects, but across a population of millions and a time of decades, they could quite easily exceed the 100 deaths from rushed construction.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?