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.