Permission for Mars

Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society, argues that by placing infinite value on an astronauts life and demanding years of expensive incremental research, the net benefit of a mission based space program is lost.

Astronauts are not just anyone. They are highly trained personnel in whom the government has invested tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure varies from astronaut to astronaut). Some, such as former fighter pilots, have received much more training than others. Let us therefore err on the high side and assign a value of $50 million per astronaut, including intrinsic worth and training.

It would have been unquestionably risky to attempt a Mars mission in the 1980s, just as it was to reach for the Moon in the 1960s. But even if we ignore the fact that the multi-decade preparatory exercise adopted as an alternative to real space exploration has already cost the lives of 14 astronauts, and will almost certainly cost more as it drags on, the question must be asked: How rational is it to spend such huge sums to marginally reduce risk to the crew of the perpetually deferred Mars I?

Suppose that by doing one of the aforementioned intermediate activities—say, running the space station program for another 10 years—we can increase the probability that the first expedition to Mars will succeed from 90 percent to 95 percent. Assume that the extended space station program costs $50 billion, that we disregard its own risk, and that the crew of the first Mars mission consists of five people. Cutting the risk to five people by 5 percent each is equivalent to saving 25 percent of one human life. At a cost of $50 billion, that would work out to $200 billion per life saved, a humanitarian effort 100,000 times less efficient than the average achieved by the Department of Transportation.

It’s when the space program lacks a mission that it cannot bear risk. Instead, it (and we) can only recoil in horror at the spectacle of the Columbia crew—which included Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon, the pilot who led the daring raid that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear bomb factory—dying on a flight devoted to ant farms, recycled-urine-based finger paints, and other science fair experiments.


It’s a curious and sad truth. 50 years ago America dared to put men on the moon because we had a mission to. It’s difficult to evaluate a human life in terms of dollar signs but Zubrin’s argument is mathematically sound, even if the numbers NASA computes are not equal to his own. As an engineer, I work with the concept of risk minimization. But an attempt to approach zero risk at infinite cost has plagued NASA for the past 30 years and will continue to do so unless an audacity to achieve is set as rule. Brave men and women risk their lives for the greater good of their country all the time. Great men and women will risk their lives for the good of mankind.


How Much Is an Astronaut’s Life Worth? —

  • Tony Russo

    We need someone to keep making compelling arguments for space exploration or else the will won’t be there. I’m looking forward to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.

    • Blake J. Graham

      @Tony Russo Over three decades have passed since the original series. Our ability to perceive the universe has increased but is nothing in comparison to the achievements made from the space race. We need another celebrity scientist. 2013 can’t come soon enough.

      • Tony Russo

        @Blake J. Graham Celebrity scientist. On Fox. Produced by Seth MacFarlane.

Commentary Ticker

  • Google Glass Lets You Take Photos With Your Brain
    July 12, 2014 | 4:02 pm

    If you haven’t heard, electroencephalograms (EEGs) have been getting better. Way better. Artificial limbs and even video game controllers are utilizing the non-invasive brain-wave monitoring method to guide computers by thought. Now English startup This Place has developed a way to bring the technology to Google Glass, allowing Google’s wearable to read your mind. Well, […]

  • Android Art: The Accidental Selfies of Google Art Project
    July 5, 2014 | 11:11 am

    Within the cultural centers of the world lurks a mechanical beast draped in silver spinning madly and capturing everything, sometimes even itself. In 2011 Google created the Art Project, an initiative to bring their Street View technology inside the cultural epicenters of the world. Google enlisted 17 world-class museums in short time. Institutions such as […]

  • Purple Mountunes Majesty: The Most Patriotic Playlist
    July 4, 2014 | 12:13 pm

    A while ago, Paul Lamere of The Echo Nest, a music-analysis company, took to finding each state’s most distinctive, yet popular, artist in a viral article. Spotify took note, purchasing Echo Nest for their analytical talent. Together, they’ve released a blog post documenting each state’s most distinctively American song creating a patriotic playlist for the […]

  • Emojinealogy: Where the Heck Emojis Come From
    July 2, 2014 | 3:10 pm

    On June 16th, the Unicode Consortium announced that 250 new emoji would be added to the list of symbols available to people’s cellphones and computer devices. The list of the new symbols can be found on Emojipedia. And no, the list doesn’t include the much needed minority representation, but it does include your favorite (?) […]

  • The Decline and Fall of the American Mall
    June 24, 2014 | 9:07 pm

    For ages, the shopping mall was as essential to the architecture of suburbia as Levittowns and freeways. But in an era of online shopping, these epicenters of brick and mortar yesteryear are quietly being abandoned across the country. While the U.S. currently has around 1,500, the number may soon shrink, and rapidly, leading to abandoned […]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!

Trending on The Airspace