Flying in the Face of Uncertainty

Jul 26, 2005 | Molly K. Macauley

Commander Eileen Collins and her crew of six have lifted off with the shuttle Discovery after NASA Administrator Mike Griffin finally gave the green light to the first U.S. space flight since the February 2003 loss of the Columbia.

While launching is significant, even more so has been the administrator's emphasis in announcing the return to flight. He sternly reminded: "The past two and a half years have resulted in significant improvements that have greatly reduced the risk of flying the shuttle. But we should never lose sight of the fact that space flight is risky." And after the lift off, he again exhorted us "to realize how chancy it is, how difficult it is, at what a primitive state of technology it still is."

These words from the head of the U.S. space program are a uniquely sober note. Such honest and blunt admonitions radically differ from entrenched NASA practice that has treated the risks of space flight much like the Victorians treated sex -- publicly unmentionable.

Resuming U.S. human space flight comes only after a lengthy Columbia accident investigation, significant reorganization at NASA, expensive technological fixes to the shuttle, and thousands of hours of re-training by the crew and shuttle technical personnel. Despite these efforts, the shuttle is flying without meeting all of the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board -- an independent group of 13 aeronautics and safety experts. Their unmet concerns include managing all of the debris generated by the shuttle's massive external tank (some debris, in the form of insulating foam, caused the Columbia's loss); in-flight repair methods; and some modifications to the shuttle orbiter itself.

Yet even if these concerns had been addressed, Griffin's point is that flying in space will never be without risk. Milton Russell, an expert in risk analysis and an emeritus professor at the University of Tennessee, puts it well: technology will never be failure free, human performance will never be perfect, institutions can fail.

Nor should space flight be risk free, even if it were possible. Who ever drives a car having taken every safety precaution, from a buckled seat belt to properly inflated tires? Who flies to Europe with a guarantee that jetliners never crash? Risk is acceptable to millions of auto and aviation passengers. Is shuttle risk acceptable to the astronauts? According to Griffin, the Discovery crew itself was "quite satisfied with where we are. They're ready to go -- really ready to go -- and think that we have met the burden." Relying on his crew to give a "go"/ "no go" decision is appropriate -- after all, who better than the astronauts themselves to have every incentive to want to fly reasonably safely. They have given their informed consent.

Flying without checking all the safety boxes and the unprecedented public reminder that flying is risky are even more appropriate because the shuttle is to be retired by 2010. Under the president's new vision for human space exploration, a new spacecraft will be developed to take humans to the Moon and to Mars. Testing out the new system will be fraught with unknowns. Publicly acknowledging that flight risk is here to stay is the right step.


Molly K. Macauley is a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, an independent energy and environmental research organization in Washington, D.C.

RFF is home to a diverse community of scholars dedicated to improving environmental policy and natural resource management through social science research. Resources for the Future provides objective and independent analysis and encourages scholars to express their individual opinions, which may differ from those of other RFF scholars, officers, and directors.