“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the loss of life.”
That quote is, of course, especially meaningful and painful this week. It’s one thing to say these words, to write this bold check in a very expensive bet. But what happens when circumstances dictate that it’s time to collect?
There is a particular poignancy to my comments about the fatal accident of Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two on Friday, October 31, or the explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on Tuesday, October 28. I spent Friday traveling. I left Chicago, where I was attending the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society International Annual Meeting (How do people learn, perform, and thrive in a complex world? How do we design and improve the systems with which people must interact?). My destination was Durham, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space SpaceVision conference (How can the next generation of passionate space enthusiasts meet with each other and their teachers and heroes? How can they get access to their favorite things of the world, and eventually get to work on them for a living?). By the time I went to bed, I’d read several reports on the SpaceShip Two accident, and the initial stages of analysis of what might have caused the critical anomaly (anomalies?). In other news, environmental sensing and data collection for the Antares accident site was still ongoing.
Wallops Island and the Mojave Desert now have teams of investigators on site, attempting to figure out what happened, and what we can learn from these profoundly painful and demoralizing experiences. As of this writing, we don’t know exactly what happened on Tuesday evening, or Friday morning. We probably won’t know definitively for a while. But I can tell you two things that they won’t find. They will not find evidence of someone who woke up that day and thought, “Let me figure out how to screw it up big time today”. And the teams will not find evidence that space is supposed to be easy. There may have been errors, but those errors are most painfully manifested in an environment that is fundamentally and profoundly intolerant. Most of us do not spend much time in the harshest regions of such environments, and we do not respect the environments when we encounter them. I was profoundly angry and upset to see television and website news reports with banner headlines: “Is this the end of commercial space flight?” “Can’t we make space travel safe?” My simple response is that the answer to both questions is an unqualified “NO”. For perspective, a statistic quoted by Lori Garver, currently of the Air Line Pilots Association, during the SpaceVision conference: at one point, the fatality rate for aviation pilots was 87%. By now, commercial aviation is statistically far safer than driving (but we don’t stop getting in our cars). The total NASA human spaceflight fatality rate is roughly equivalent to that of those attempting to climb Mt. Everest (but there are still people who choose to do it, because it’s there).
We can certainly work to make space travel, and many other aspects of the world, safer than they are currently. If we challenge ourselves, intelligently marry our capabilities and culture, we can get better. Since the first commercial air flights in the 1920s, what has reduced the fatality rate? There are three main sources of change that I think are relevant. Beginning with the development of NACA (the forerunner of NASA) in 1915, there has been a great investment in government research to improve the available materials, processes, and technologies applied to airframes, propulsion systems, avionics, wings, and other components. As capabilities improve, multiple companies have gotten involved to create, and support, growing demand through a variety of technology solutions (some of which is advanced from proprietary, in-house company research). The third approach is not purely technological, but sociotechnical: we’ve changed the culture and processes of how commercial flight gets done. The number of accidents in commercial aviation has dropped significantly due to the implementation of human-machine system improvements as well as human-human processes such as Cockpit (now Crew) Resources Management. And certainly, this pathway has not been without costs; individual aircraft, and even whole solutions (such as the de Havilland Comet), have been forced to pay on the bet. And yet, we continue to fly.
No, I am not hardened or uncaring about pain or loss; in fact, I am a strong advocate of a national stand-down period of memory, reflection and refocus on the challenges of human spaceflight. That stand-down period would be January 27 – February 3 each year—a single week window spanning the anniversaries of the loss of Shuttles Columbia and Challenger, and Apollo 1. Perhaps we have the justification for a similar period of recognition for commercial spaceflight, although it is still very early in our experience. But the clear answer is to attend to the painful lessons of the past, and use those lessons to do better—not to give up because it was hard, or dangerous, or painful.
The author of the quote at the start of this essay knew that. He was willing to make that bet, even knowing that the check might be called in for collection. He was Gus Grissom.