November 16, 2021

AGE OF DISCOVERY 2.0: Episode 5 of a six-part podcast series I’m co-producing that looks a the past and future of human exploration: Death Has and Will Always Been an Inevitable Part of Discovery, Whether on Magellan’s Voyage or a Trip to Mars:

The history of exploration has always meant a high chance of death for the explorers. During Magellan’s voyage, 90 percent of the crew died. Sir John Franklin’s lost voyage of 1846 fared even worse, in which 129 men went to an unknown fate that likely involved starvation and/or cannibalism. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death of the humans carrying them out.

To talk about the need for accepting risk in the name of discovery is aerospace engineer and science writer Rand Simberg, author of Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space.

For decades since the end of Apollo, human spaceflight has been very expensive and relatively rare (about 600 people total, with a death rate of about 4%), largely because of this risk aversion on the part of the federal government and culture. From the Space Shuttle, to the International Space Station, the new commercial crew program to deliver astronauts to it, and the regulatory approach for commercial spaceflight providers, our attitude toward safety has been fundamentally irrational, expensive and even dangerous, while generating minimal accomplishment for maximal cost.

Rand explains why this means that we must regulate passenger safety in the new commercial spaceflight industry with a lighter hand than many might instinctively prefer, that NASA must more carefully evaluate rewards from a planned mission to rationally determine how much should be spent to avoid the loss of participants, and that Congress must stop insisting that safety is the highest priority, for such insistence is an eloquent testament to how unimportant they and the nation consider the opening of this new frontier. (Bumped).

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