Friday, January 28, 2011

Death in space

A while back I noted that the Space Shuttle had something like a 1% failure rate -- roughly one out of every hundred launches resulted in catastrophic failure. Here's another way to think about it: Of the 355 astronauts who have flown on the Shuttle, 14 have not returned. That's a 4% mortality rate. In most election years, a House incumbent has roughly the same chance of being defeated as a Shuttle astronaut has of dying.

Forgive me if this is disrespectful to bring up on the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, the day after the anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster, and three days before the anniversary of the Columbia disaster. (What is it about this time of year?) But this strikes me as a pretty good time to ask what exactly we're trying to accomplish with the manned space program and whether what we've been doing is the best way to accomplish it.

8 comments:

JHB said...

Well, sure, if you put it that way -- but make it per mile, and they're doing great.

Seth said...

If you measure it per mile flown, yeah, it's great. If you measure in the nautical distance from the launch point to the landing site, not so great.

Rick said...

But it is hardly as if the purpose of space missions is to get from one place to another on Earth!

Seth said...

Then what is the purpose?

Rick said...

At this point the purpose of human space missions is to learn how, and how well, humans live and work in space. The International Space Station is, effectively speaking, a training flight for prospective deep space human missions. Asking whether the ISS does 'science' is like asking whether the X-15 did 'science.'

Whether human deep space missions are a worthwhile goal is a fair question. On the one hand, humans on the spot can explore and analyze far more effectively than robots with fixed capabilities, remote-controlled from 200 million km away. On the other hand, getting humans to the spot is (currently) horrendously expensive and pretty damn hazardous. I come down in favor, as you can figure if you follow my name link, but I don't think the answer is a no brainer either way.

Seth said...

I don't mean to sound flip here. Well, I probably do, but I shouldn't. You're certainly correct that this isn't a no-brainer. It seems to me, though, that for many years now, the default answer has been that we need to continue manned space research simply because we need to. Justifications beyond "We need to send people into near space so we can better send people into deep space" are rarely offered, and I don't think they get to the real question of what exactly we're doing up there.

If we had never had a space program up until now, would we create one, absent a rocket duel with another world superpower?

Rick said...

Of course you meant to sound flip, because you - not unreasonably - expected the typical lame answer.

If we didn't have a space program now, we probably would not create one, given the current vapors about government spending even on programs of obvious utility. And absent the space race you can get into endless secondary what-ifs - would Trek: TOS have existed to propagate space tropes beyond SF geekdom into the general pop culture?

But I suspect that some modest space program would have developed anyway, growing out of sounding rockets, the X-plane program, etc. And once established it would survive - as NASA has, on a larger scale - basically because the sheer coolness of space travel provides a base of public support.

jim said...

We'd still create an unmanned space program because it's too obviously useful for military and commercial purposes.

Like our real space program, it would almost certainly use boosters derived from ICBMs. IIRC only the Saturn and shuttle aren't, even if by this point the Delta IV shares little more than a passing resemblance with its Thor granddaddy.