NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Risk

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Risk

Benefit vs. Risk

There has been an ongoing discussion – which can sometimes turn into an argument- among space professionals for decades: the value of putting humans into space vs. what can be done with robotic or “unmanned” systems. Having just lost yet another human crew in space, it is natural that this discussion should play some prominence today.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) noted on September 2nd that “going into space will be risky at best.” Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX) put it in a grander context the next day: “I often hear our astronauts referred to as a ‘Columbus’ or a ‘Magellan’. I wonder how many ships were lost at sea before Columbus or Magellan completed their voyages and how much risk they took. I think we need to think [and accept] that we do have a risk and that we at least make a guess as to how to fix this.”

Sen. Ron Weyden (D-OR) told Sean O’Keefe the day before “We cannot resolve the issue of NASA’s basic mission without looking in a fresh way at the direction of the manned space program. I would like to make a modest proposal: within 90 days to 6 months, NASA should prepare a “cost/benefit analysis on the manned space program. I would like to learn more precisely what can be accomplished – and at what price – and what cannot. Once that information has been made available to the committee we will be in a position to look carefully at how manned spaceflight fits into NASA’s future – and what could be accomplished with unmanned spaceflight.” O’Keefe said that he was intrigued by the notion and that he’d have people look into it.

That was then – this is now

In his assault on the Space Shuttle earlier this year, Rep. Barton said “An accident rate of one every 62 and a half missions if 14 Americans have lost their lives is not acceptable. And it’s my opinion that we can’t make the existing orbiter as safe as it needs to be,” said Barton. “I think we ought to scrap that program.”

Curiously, during the Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, and Skylab programs there were three fatalities – a failure rate of 1 in 16. If you include the Apollo 13 accident (which could have easily turned fatal), that’s a failure rate of 1 in 8. Yet the Apollo program rebounded after each accident. When it was eventually cancelled it was for budgetary reasons arising from the Vietnam War, and perhaps some boredom on the part of the American people – not because of concerns for safety or the risk taken by astronauts.

One of they key issues debated post-Columbia is the issue of risk: what risk did the crew accept when the climbed into the Shuttle? What risk did NASA accept? What was the real risk? What did NASA do to reduce the risk? Much of this debate hinges on hindsight i.e. what might have been done in a perfect world where everyone was omniscient with infinite time (and budget) to purse every imaginable failure scenario

Whether the discussion hinges on what could have been or what actually happened, or whether the intent is to blame, explain, or exonerate, the issue of risk – identifying it, reducing it, accepting it – all in the course of exploring space is one worthy of a public discussion.

Indeed, the fact that so many circular, hindsight-laden discussions go on, all based upon how an admittedly imperfect NASA system functioned, begs for some attempt on the agency’s part to engage in a broader discussion. This needs to be done not only to allow greater public understanding of what NASA does, but also, to learn from other research and exploration venues so as to improve its way of doing business.

In many ways. NASA needs to renew its covenant – or at least some level of trust – with the American public – all sectors thereof – as to what it does and how it does it. Benefit vs. risk is a good place to start since it is at the core of NASA’s most recent challenge.

How to calculate the risk

Space exploration is a risky endeavor. Human space flight is especially risky -it always has been and will likely continue to be so for quite some time. There are benefits to be derived from sending humans into space that need to be weighed against those risks. Whenever possible risks should be identified, examined, and a plan made to reduce or eliminate them.

There comes a point, however, when the removal of risk is either impossible or so impractical as to undermine the ability to send humans into space in the first place. A balance must therefore be struck between the risk inherent in human space exploration and the benefits derived thereof. This shouldn’t be all that difficult given that such evaluations are made in every day life .

Risk can be calculated mathematically, but it is also a product of every individual’s perception of the world. Some things we think are riskier than others can be shown statistically to be quite the contrary. Taking risk in pursuit of a greater good is also an effort that involves personal acceptance of risk by the participants. Herein lies a point that makes such discussions of benefit vs. risk in space flight: they are highly subjective and prone to recalculation as public opinion.

The fact that more people have died in Iraq since hostilities (i.e. overt war) were declared to be at an end, than had died before such a proclamation was made, are given a lot of media attention. The subtext here (at least from my perspective) is that it was more acceptable for people to lose their lives during a state of war but that this is unacceptable (or less politically palatable) once hostilities have been formally called to an end. These trivial demarcations not withstanding, these people are all still quite dead – and they all died in service to their nation regardless of the calendar.

Risk is also a relative thing – and everyone arrives at their perception of risk by a different route, mathematics not withstanding. However, perception is often at odds with reality when it comes to figuring out what the true risks are and how they rank with perspective to one another.

According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report road deaths, totaling 1.26 million, claimed the highest number of victims in the year 2000. This was followed by suicide which claimed 815,000 lives and interpersonal violence which claimed 520,000. Wars and conflict ranked sixth — between poisoning and falls — with 310,000 deaths. Yet I would be willing to bet that most people would cite war as the top killer and that more people are murdered than commit suicide.

It’s all a matter of perception – which is not always the same as fact.

Again, human space exploration is risky. Such was the case for all great feats of human exploration ranging from mountaineering and aviation to the great feats of oceanic exploration of the last half millennium. The fact that significant numbers of people lost their lives is viewed in hindsight as being part of the human push to explore. At the time, such sacrifices were seen as a normal part of life.

Is it Safe?

Safety – both concern for it and lack of concern for it at NASA was at the heart of the CAIB’s findings. Clearly, before the Shuttle fleet flies again, a thorough determination will need to be made of the fleet’s ability to fly within accepted norms of safety.

When asked about a sentence in the CAIB report which uses two negatives i.e. that the Shuttle was “not unsafe” Gehman said “we did not think it is safe. It is risky. And we did not think it was unsafe – if we did we would have recommended that it not fly. We did not say that.” Rather, Gehman and his board saw a path whereby things could be fixed such that the Shuttle could be flown safely.

However, the process whereby NASA makes such determinations will need a fundamental polarity shift according to the CAIB. Sean O’Keefe said that there needs to be a fundamental shift from the current ethic of “prove that it is unsafe” to one wherein all processes seek to “prove that it is safe.”

How the safety system reports its findings also needs to be revamped such that the safety people don’t report to the same people to are worried about schedule and budget (as is currently the case) according to the CAIB. This has an inherent series of conflict according to the CAIB that can cause safety an schedule to be weighed against each other when safety should be an overriding factor with regard to schedule.

NASA has sought to address this issue already by establishing the Independent Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) at Langley Research Center. While the effort received positive words from members of Congress, some concern was voiced that there needs to be some way to be certain that this new entity is truly isolated from the programmatic management with which safety had become intertwined. O’Keefe suggested that this center could indeed have its charter tweaked over time to address such concerns.

All of this new found emphasis on safety is fine. It is easy to focus on safety in the immediate aftermath of a terrible accident. The hard part is to stay the course such that this focus is maintained permanently. After the Challenger accident, an initial flurry of safety focus was all too soon replaced by relaxed and diminished concern. Its part of human nature.


Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

More Money Please


– Risk


Speaking Out



Get With The Program

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.