It’s About Saving Political Keister, Not Astronaut Lives

This story has been making the rounds:

Starting with near zero space capability in 1961, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put men on our companion world in eight years. Yet despite vastly superior technology and hundreds of billions of dollars in subsequent spending, the agency has been unable to send anyone else farther than low Earth orbit ever since.

Why? Because we insist that our astronauts be as safe as possible.

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.

That’s about the gist of it, though the article goes on and on (I skipped most of it) about how much money programs spend on safety while not getting much scientific bang for the buck.

The author is looking at this from a rather more utilitarian ethic than politicians use when setting budgets and objectives for NASA. Here’s how they decide what to focus on.

They just look at this picture:

Then ask themselves, “another one of those on my watch?”


Engineers and geeks all over the world cry foul and plead, with articles like the one above, for sanity to return, for society to take a bit of risk for a bit of reward.

“Sorry, what was that about reward?” our intrepid politico glances up from his latest pork-ridden bill. Ok, here’s our chance for the big pitch. Take it away, poindexter…

[a bunch of complicated talk about long-dated options on future prosperity]

“Meh, get in line”

One thought on “It’s About Saving Political Keister, Not Astronaut Lives

  1. The cost-benefit of a lost astronaut is much more than the loss of an individual life, because there are political realities that need to be taken into account. Screw up enough missions, and NASA’s budget gets cut. That costs the agency billions.
    In a way, each astronaut’s life contains an embedded call on future federal budgets. Kill enough astronauts, and the federal piggybank is off limits.
    In this, I think we all agree. However, the article you cite supposes that the political and humanist calculation could or should at some point be safely ignored.

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