The Risk - and Benefits - of Discovery

Space Shuttle Columbia sat on its launchpad as the countdown to launch passed several critical benchmarks. At five minutes to liftoff, a computer malfunction generated a closed indication for a valve that controlled the liquid oxygen (LOX) level in the external tank. Human technicians reversed the valve position, thinking they were closing the valve. In fact, frigid LOX began pouring out of the external tank while the countdown continued unabated.

Then, 31 seconds before main engine ignition, a critical temperature gauge registered an out-of-range temperature causing the launch to be scrubbed. Had Columbia launched, it would have run out of fuel long before reaching orbit. No one knows for sure what the consequence would have been.

The important point is that on Jan 6, 1986, disaster was averted. When Columbia lifted off 6 days later, Rep. Bill Nelson, D-FL, and his fellow crew members flew a successful mission.

And only 17 days later, Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

Seventeen years and three days later, Columbia and its crew of seven perished during the final minutes of their return to Earth.

It's all about risk.

What causes men and women who could live out their lives in comfort and safety anywhere on this planet to risk life and limb to participate in humankind's exploratory ventures away from our home world?

How do the astronauts, the launch team, the design and construction engineers, the entire NASA team assess risk in the first place? And then, how do they manage it?

As human beings we face risk every day: When crossing the street; when driving down a highway at 60 mph., or even 20; when backing out of a driveway; when entering a high-rise. We constantly assess risk, and evaluate the perceived benefit against that risk.

For example, you are hiking with your child along a raging whitewater river. Somehow, your backpack ends up in the river. You quickly evaluate the risk you take in jumping into the river against the value of saving your backpack. Chances are you will let the pack go. Now consider the same scenario, except that your child ends up in the river instead of the backpack. Chances are you will jump into the water to rescue your child.

In these scenarios, the risk is exactly the same, but your evaluation of the benefit to be gained by taking the risk is entirely different.

Risk evaluation engineers could probably give you an accurate accounting of the risk-to-benefit ratio in each case, proving that your choice to rescue your child but to let your pack go is exactly the right choice. As a rule, however, human beings don't need to see numbers like these. In a split second, even if we flunked algebra in high school, we instinctively know the right answer.

When we deal with space shuttles riding a plume of liquid hydrogen/oxygen generated flame on the way up, and reentering the Earth's atmosphere at speeds greater than 18,000 mph., speeds at which space rocks become meteorites that burn up in the atmosphere, we can no longer rely on instinct to give us the right answers.

Typically, however, astronauts are not capable of making these assessments; in fact, such evaluations usually result from the efforts of many.

During the 1970s, early in the shuttle program, NASA examined a scenario where damaged tiles on the shuttle might need repair or replacement in orbit before the shuttle could return to Earth. The "obvious" technique was to have an astronaut go EVA - do a space walk - over the shuttle side and down underneath to remove and replace the damaged pieces. Upon comparing the risk of returning to Earth with the damaged tiles, to the risk of going EVA and the additional risk of the space-walking astronaut actually causing further tile damage, NASA abandoned this concept. The potential benefit simply didn't justify the known risk coupled with the potential additional risk.

The most visible members of the NASA team, of course, are the astronauts. For them, risk is immediate and palpable. More than any others, the risk applies directly to them. On the other hand, the benefit is less obvious.

One quickly understands from interviews or any personal contact with the astronauts that their personal benefit is the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Individual astronauts typically are willing to accept a significantly higher level of risk than regular people doing normal things. Just like adventurers and explorers from earlier ages, these individuals thrive on challenge and danger.

Beyond the personal thrill of fulfillment, however, the space program has impacted nearly every aspect of life on Earth. Everything from navigation and communication, television and radio, to manufacturing discoveries, new materials, and medical breakthroughs have come out of the space program. And this is just the beginning.

Leif Erickson and Christopher Columbus pioneered a New World that eventually resulted in a planet dominated by freedom and democracy. Humans are now in the initial stages of establishing a permanent presence away from Earth in space. From this beginning, eventually we will be able to conduct most mining and manufacturing off the planet, taking the consequent pollution and damage to the Earth's delicate ecosystem with them.

It is not farfetched to anticipate that we will move electrical power generation off the Earth's surface. Or use the Moon's surface and the asteroids as ideal laboratories for the discovery of new materials and processes that will benefit humanity back on Earth, and wherever we will eventually settle away from Earth. The continuing adventure of discovery will give each new generation a reason to live, something to strive for beyond merely living one's life until death.

Can such potential benefits justify loss of human life?

Ask the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save those around him. Whether he acts or not, he will probably die; but by throwing himself on the grenade and dying, he assures continued life for the rest.

Throughout human history, heroes have sacrificed themselves for the greater good. The lives of family and friends, continued freedom and liberty for those left behind, these justify the risk of lonely death on the battlefield.

Some say that no benefit justifies the loss of human life, that human life is to precious to take such risks. I believe, however, that precisely because human life is so precious, we must take these risks.

A safer planet, and an open-ended frontier that can indefinitely challenge humankind, and keep us from stagnating and eventually reverting to feudalism - these justify the risk of accident and occasional loss of life as we don our shoes and take the first faltering footsteps from our cradle of origin. As we learn to walk, and eventually to run, we're going to slip and fall from time to time. We might even break a bone or two, and some of us may not make it. But humankind will prevail and survive into the distant future.

The benefit does justify the risk.