Taking Risks on the Space Frontier

Jun 1, 2005 | Molly K. Macauley

This web feature appears in the Summer 2005 issue of Resources

The feature is drawn in part from "Flying in the Face of Uncertainty: Human Risk in Space Activities," which appears in the summer 2005 issue of the Chicago Journal of International Law; the complete journal article is available for download below.


On January 14, 2004 President Bush announced a radically new direction for the U.S. space program. He directed NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and later, send a manned mission to Mars. This vision has led NASA to prepare for the increasing role of humans in space - from developing new space transportation vehicles to modeling the potential short-and long- medical effects of the harsh space environment.

Some months later, in summer 2004, the headline-making successful flight of SpaceShipOne heralded the first privately financed commercial vehicle for taking ordinary citizens - not astronauts - to suborbital space and back. SpaceShipOne's financial backers - affiliated with Virgin Atlantic Airlines - have promised to develop and promote routine space tourism in the near future. Their flight joins a list of two other flights since 2001 that took regular citizens commercially to space, with each space tourist paying Russia about $20 million to fly on the Soyuz rocket.


Accompanying this significant infusion of public and private capital underwriting hu­mans in space is a looming public policy problem: managing the risk. Risk is borne by the first parties - the actual space travelers themselves. Perhaps less obvious, risk is also borne by third parties, including persons on the ground beneath the flight path of a space vehi­cle and even the general public. Sound risk management calls for appropriate application, balancing, and coordination of regulation, legislation, and other forms of potential policy intervention. While government self-insures (that is, taxpayers underwrite the risk of NASA's space activities), the increasingly large private-sector role in space also calls for greater consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of relying on conventional prac­tices such as tort liability and insurance as alternatives to government intervention in de­signing public policy.

In order to build a foundation for future analyses, it is important to note that zero risk in space activity is unattainable and an obviously unreasonable policy objective. The objec­tive is not "no" risk but accepting risk; managing it through a combination of incentives, regulation, and legislation; and rationally deciding how much to accept based on the ex­pected benefit.


Link to Chicago Journal of International Law Article
Flying in the Face of Uncertainty: Human Risk in Space Activities
Reprinted from the Chicago Journal of International Law
Summer 2005

The Human Factor

The most notable examples of risks to humans involved in space activity are the fatal acci­dents that occurred with Apollo 1 and with the shuttles Challenger and Columbia. The policy response to these events is illustrative of as-yet-unresolved problems in risk management.

After each incident, investigations by Congress, presidential commissions, and NASA it­self led to engineering redesigns - in short, technological fixes. These reviews also recom­mended changes in how space activities are conducted, largely with respect to how safety con­cerns are communicated in large organizations like NASA. The history of these accidents repeatedly illustrates that space flight remains risky even after exhaustive, painstakingly de­tailed and careful investigation, extensive re-engineering, and changes in communication.

Another pattern evident with these accidents is the extraordinarily long amount of time that has elapsed between each accident and subsequent return to flight. This trend harbors important implications for the degree to which the risk of flight might be more readily ac­cepted. These long "stand-downs" after an accident will make it difficult for NASA to meet the timeline set forth in President Bush's plan for sending humans to the moon by 2020.

In the case of Apollo 1, the three-man crew of the Apollo command module died in a fire on the launch pad during a preflight test at Cape Canaveral on January 27, 1967. Twenty months elapsed before the next manned Apollo mission (an unmanned mission was flown in November 1967). First NASA and then Congress conducted exhaustive investigations of the accident. The reviews concluded that the most likely accident cause was a spark from a short circuit. 

Other factors materially contributed to the Apollo 1 accident, including the absence of emergency equipment or personnel on the launch pad because the test was a simulation and not considered hazardous, the lack of emergency exits or procedures for the crew, and prob­lems that prevailed in communicating safety concerns between NASA and its contractors.

The space shuttle Challenger accident on January 22, 1986, was attributable to flawed en­gineering design, poor management and accountability, and a host of oversights. The presi­dential commission investigating Challenger cited the cause of the disaster as a failure of an "O-ring" seal in one of the shuttle's solid-fuel rockets.

The commission found fault not only with the failed sealant ring but also with the NASA officials who allowed the shuttle launch to take place despite concerns voiced by engineers. The entire space shuttle program was grounded during the investigation and did not resume flying for 32 months - returning only after shuttle designers made several technical modifications and NASA management implemented stricter regulations regarding quality control and safety.


Discovery's cargo bay

Discovery's cargo bay over Earth's horizon was photographed by one of the seven crew members as the shuttle approached the International Space Station
on July 28, 2005. (NASA)


The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), established to investigate the February 1, 2003, accident cited physical failures in the space­craft design and underlying weaknesses in NASA's organization as the principal contributors to the in­cident. The physical cause was a breach in the ther­mal protection system on the wings. The organiza­tional causes ranged from schedule pressures to characterization and management of the shuttle as operational rather than developmental. The CAIB said there was inadequate testing to fully under­stand the shuttle's performance, organizational bar­riers that prevented effective communication about safety and stifled differences of opinion, and infor­mal, poorly documented decisionmaking within the regular chain of command. The shuttle system re­sumed flying in July 2005 - about 18 months after the accident. In addition to its detailed review of the Columbia event, the CAIB offered a broader conclusion: "[O]peration of the Space Shuttle, and all human spaceflight, is a developmental activity with high inherent risks." These words are worth bearing in mind, as future spacecraft that are developed to ferry humans to the moon and Mars will be radically new types of vehicles that must meet even more challenging flight conditions than did Apollo or the shuttles. The new spacecraft will need to be able to withstand extreme hot and cold, radiation, and long-duration requirements that will be encountered on future missions. With each successive mission, vehicles are expected to evolve, with each stage incorporating increasingly more de­manding physical capabilities. The program timing is likely to make each vehicle and each flight a unique experiment with new, unknown risks.

Leaving It Up To Robots

Advances in computing and robotic technology since the Apollo and shuttle programs make unmanned exploration a potentially very close substitute for human exploration. High-resolution, high-speed, and high-quality animation and graphics of computerized virtual re­ality can readily be combined with the truly fantastic data sent back by unmanned probes.

For those who want to see and even touch Mars, interplanetary robots can do this, too, by gathering samples and returning them to earth. Years ago, unmanned spacecraft brought back moon rocks. In 2004, a low-cost NASA spacecraft, Stardust, collected samples of comet and interplanetary dust and will return them to earth via parachute in 2006. Advances in unmanned data collection from space and other innovations in information technology are improving so rapidly that robotic success could even undo human exploration and enable sophisticated, "stay-at-home" explorers. Robots in the near future are likely to be capable of making split-second decisions and displaying the spirit of inquiry that human explorers bring. As the NASA probe Spirit began its journey on Mars, British scientists reported the first robot capable of theorizing, reasoning, and actively learning. 

Balancing manned and robotic exploration based in part on a comparison of human risk is only part of a much larger and much-needed discussion about future space activities. While spaceflight accidents may never be taken in the stride of auto or aviation accidents, the pursuit of human spaceflight requires greater acceptance of the outcome that lives will be lost. According to NASA data, the number of fully qualified candidates for the astronaut corps has stayed the same or even increased after shuttle accidents, clear proof that appli­cants are comfortable with their perceived level of the risks that come with manned spaceflight. For policymakers, this finding can serve as a useful benchmark in many policy decisions: when evaluating the trade-off between using robots or involving humans, in conducting accident reviews to ascertain "how safe is safe enough," and in tech­nological fixes for safer spacecraft.


Brown Dwarf Image

This artist's concept shows a brown dwarf surrounded by a swirling disk of planet-building dust. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope spotted such a disk around a surprisingly low-mass brown dwarf, or "failed star." Astronomers believe that this unusual system will eventually spawn planets. If so, they speculate the disk has enough mass to make one small gas giant and a few Earth-sized rocky planets. (NASA/JPL)

Fly at Some Risk

After the success of the privately built and financed spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, British busi­nessman Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Atlantic Airlines, quickly entered into a li­censing agreement with the owners to build five spacecraft for passengers. Branson's busi­ness plan within the next three years is to fly 50 passengers a month, charging $200,000 each, for a two-hour flight. Shortly after the agreement, a hotel magnate offered another prize, for $50 million, for the first private manned mission to orbit the earth.

In the wake of SpaceShipOne's success, the U.S. Congress entered into debate about how to regulate commercial human spaceflight, arguing at length about how to handle crew and passenger safety and the appropriate scope of authority to be vested with the government. Some legislators supported allowing privately owned and operated spacecraft to carry pay­ing passengers on a "fly at your own risk" basis. This perspective made private spaceflight rel­atively free from regulation, much like the early aviation barnstorming era. As one expert opined, passengers should be able to board their vehicles with the same freedom as the stunt pilots who pioneered commercial aviation.

Several draft bills before Congress proposed regulating the training and setting standards for the medical condition of crews, the extent to which passengers would have to be in­formed of the risks of their participation, and whether passengers would be required to sup­ply written, informed consent to safety-related risk associated with the flight. Another topic of debate during the hearings was the use of mutual waivers of liability with licensees and the federal government as well as the extent of the government's role. Industry wanted loose oversight, claiming that federal authority should be limited to safeguarding the uninvolved public (such as populations living under the flight path of the spacecraft).

While the final version of the legislation for regulating space tourism has a preamble state­ment recognizing that space transportation is inherently risky, the specific provisions only loosely regulate passenger safety