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NSRC 2020

 
Branson in SS2 cabin
Andy Thomas discusses the issue of risk and space exploration at the Mars Society conference in Washington DC in August. (credit: J. Foust)

Dealing with risk

It’s perhaps the strongest four-letter word in space endeavors today. It can have a powerful, even paralyzing, effect on people and programs across multiple dimensions, from technology to finance to policy. Its mention raises concerns, and doubts, regarding whether such efforts can ultimately be successful. The word?

Risk.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by government programs and private ventures alike is not so much the technical and programmatic risks associated with those efforts—although those are very real and challenging—but rather the perception of risk of these programs by the general public. Witness the reaction to last month’s STS-115 shuttle mission, which spent an extra day in orbit to carry out additional inspections to the exterior of Atlantis after small objects were seen floating away from the orbiter: some argued that this was evidence that it was too risky to continue flying the shuttle, and that the orbiters should be retired now lest a more serious incident happen in the remaining fifteen or so missions.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by government programs and private ventures alike is not so much the technical and programmatic risks associated with those efforts—although those are very real and challenging—but rather the perception of risk of these programs by the general public.

Private space ventures are not immune to such concerns, either. Some worry about the public response the first time a passenger-carrying vehicle crashing, resulting in the deaths of some or all of those aboard. Will it mean the end of the nascent space tourism industry, or will the public instead accept it in much the same way it handles passenger airliner accidents? It may well depend on how risky the public deems such flights should be—rather than how risky they actually are—and if that level of risk is acceptable.

After all, in general the public’s perception and tolerance of risk is a complex issue. Every day, it seems, we hear examples of how risk averse and litigious American society in particular has become. At the same time, though, many people participate in, or at least celebrate those that participate in, risky activities like extreme sports. And everyday we all perform activities that carry a non-zero degree of risk of injury of death—like driving to and from work—without giving that risk a second thought.

How do, or should, those perceptions of risk translate to spaceflight? Earlier this year two panels at two very different conferences—the NewSpace 2006 conference in Las Vegas in July and the Ninth International Mars Society Convention in Washington DC in August—held panels that took on the issue of risk for public and private space efforts. While no one in either panel provided a magic solution to make concerns about spaceflight risks among the general public go away—or even if they should—panelists provided new insights into how to make the public better aware, and more accepting, of the inherent risks of journeying into and exploring space.

Three perspectives of risks

One major issue when dealing with this subject involves who is taking the risk. At the Mars Society panel, Charles Duelfer, chairman and CEO of t/Space and former head of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, noted that risks are perceived differently by individuals, companies, and governments. The simplest decision-making, not surprisingly, involves individuals. “An individual can make a decision to do something which has some degree of risk based on all sorts of reasons: prestige, money, patriotism,” he said. “The only person he has to convince is himself.” This can lead to very different perceptions of risk from person to person: Duelfer, an accomplished skydiver, believes that activity is “less risky than driving a motorcycle.”

“When I look at the decisions that NASA has to do, when they’re making decisions about lives, there’s a different calculus” than the military, said Duelfer. “I don’t know why that is.”

The perception of risk becomes more complicated at the corporate level. “The incentives and rewards are different,” he said, and “decisions are made by more than one person.” Companies need to make profits, which often forces them to reject the risks associated with long-term, but potentially high-payoff, initiatives in favor of near-term, less risky projects. Even with that mindset, though, there has to be some willingness to take risks if the company is to survive, he noted. “If they don’t take risks, that could be fatal.”

Risks are handled very differently at the government level. “Governments tend to be very risk averse, in my view,” he said. “In the United States you have to convince the body politic: there’s a lot of people you have to convince that the course you want to go is the right direction. There’s a lot of people involved in the decision.” However, even within government various agencies make decisions about risks differently. The military, he notes, makes life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. Yet, he finds, “when I look at the decisions that NASA has to do, when they’re making decisions about lives, there’s a different calculus. I don’t know why that is.”

Weighing risks versus benefits

That “different calculus” that NASA performs came under some criticism during the Mars Society panel. Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, noted that for a time NASA was considering spending $300 million to build a deorbiting module for the Hubble Space Telescope, concerned that without it, the telescope’s uncontrolled reentry would result in a 1-in-10,000 chance of killing someone on the ground. Zubrin argued that if NASA was really interested in saving lives, particularly in Third World nations—since Hubble’s orbit primarily takes it over such countries—it would instead give the money to charity organizations working to save lives there. “It’s categorically absurd,” he said. “The amount of lives you could save with $300 million spent in some rational way, on medicine, famine relief, or vaccinations, would far exceed this.”

Zubrin believes that such skewed risk analyses would carry over to a manned Mars mission. Imagine, he said, that NASA had a choice of sending either two manned missions, each with a 90-percent chance of success, versus a single mission with a 95-percent chance of success. The logical choice would seem to be the former one, since there’s a 99-percent chance that at least one of the missions would succeed, although there would be a 19-percent chance that at least one of the missions would fail, losing the crew. “I think that the way that NASA is currently organized, they would, in fact, choose the .95 [mission], they would go for the one that has the lower risk of losing crew, but much lower chance of mission success,” he said. “I think that is wrong. The mission has to come first.”

One of the reasons for this approach to dealing with risk may be rooted in the belief by many that NASA hasn’t done a good job explaining to the public why people should go into space in general, making the public less willing to accept risks to human lives. “I don’t think that the public or Congress have a proper and deep appreciation of the benefits that space exploration provides,” said NASA astronaut Andy Thomas, another participant in the Mars Society panel. That hasn’t been for a lack of trying on NASA’s part, he noted, but “the reasons we’ve given don’t tend to resonate with them.”

“I don’t think that the public or Congress have a proper and deep appreciation of the benefits that space exploration provides,” said Thomas. “The reasons we’ve given don’t tend to resonate with them.”

Thomas ticked off some of the reasons that NASA has put forward for selling the space program, like spinoffs and other economic arguments, but concluded that they have not been effective. “My own personal belief for the benefit of space exploration, that I use to justify it, is that it is going to help us understand ourselves, the universe, our place in the universe, and how we came to be here,” he said. “But that argument does not resonate with everyone; in fact, many people say, ‘You don’t need to do that. We know the answer to those questions, and you can find them in Genesis.’”

To better sell the program, and thus improve the benefits side of the risk-benefits equation, Thomas believes that the public needs to be more involved in the program, through participatory efforts like allowing the public to control lunar or Mars rovers, or name features on the surfaces of these worlds. “If we fail in this, then the public will not accept the risk-benefits equation and they’ll say no.”

Risk and personal spaceflight

The risk-benefits equation also exists for private human spaceflight ventures, but is weighted quite differently. Individuals are not only more willing to take risks to fly into space, but also openly embrace those risks. “I’m a risk taker, I like taking risks,” said Reda Anderson, a self-described adventurer who is the first customer for Rocketplane Kistler’s suborbital vehicle currently under development, and a participant in the NewSpace 2006 conference panel on risk. “There’s a certain amount of thrill that comes along with that.”

However, how much risk should companies allow their customers to assume? “You don’t go too far before you run up against what I call the ‘D.D. Harriman problem’,” said Randall Clague, government liaison for XCOR Aerospace. That’s a reference to a character from Robert Heinlein’s stories who invented spaceflight but could not fly himself because of a heart condition. He eventually did fly, cognizant of the risks and despite the objections of the board of his company, making it to the Moon and dying there.

“It presents an ethical problem,” Clague said at NewSpace 2006. “Would I fly D.D. Harriman? Would I fly somebody who is not going to survive the flight, or who has a very low probability of surviving the flight?” He said that he was initially opposed to flying someone like that, but has since changed his mind. “If you want to go, and you know the risks, whatever they are, we’re going to do the best we can for you.”

While willing to accept risk, companies and customers want to do as much as they can to reduce the risk to themselves and others. “My position is that I don’t want anything on this vehicle, or on my body, or in the plane, or anywhere else around, that does anything to increase the risk in any way,” said Anderson. That includes a disdain for pressure suits (too complicated) as well as floating around the cabin during the zero-g portion of the flight (too much danger of wreaking havoc, or having others wreak havoc, while weightless.)

Clague, though, said that XCOR plans to use pressure suits on the flights of its suborbital vehicle. “We don’t want to rely on just one system,” he said. “It’s life support: you want redundant systems.”

“If you want to go, and you know the risks, whatever they are, we’re going to do the best we can for you,” said Clague.

Anderson has a unique way of minimizing risk for her flight: she has visited the Rocketplane factory and talked with the employees there who are building the XP vehicle. “I shake hands and hug every one of the men and women there and say, ‘Hi, I’m Reda Anderson. I may look like payload to you, but I look like a human to me, and my only acceptable risk is to come back in equal or better condition than when I went up there.’”

“We go one better,” said Clague of how XCOR motivates its employees to think about reducing risk. “They’re going to ride on the vehicle.”

While that approach may be more enlightened that how NASA copes with risk, there’s still the issue of dealing with government regulators and overall concerns about liability. Clague said that, so far, the government has taken a “revolutionary” approach to the topic, not trying to overregulate the industry. “They can’t regulate safety, they don’t know how,” he said, noting that the best the government has done with reusable vehicles, the shuttle, failed twice in 113 flights, a rate unacceptable to any private venture.

The fear remains, though, that the government could step in with new regulations in the event of an accident, rules that could stifle innovation possibly even quash the industry. That’s something Anderson doesn’t want to happen, even if she loses her life flying into space. “If anything happens, for instance, to me, the last thing I want is for this industry to stop.”


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