Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

An Acceptable Risk
The Oxymoron of Safe Space Travel

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 4, 2003 --  

The emotional flurry that has erupted following the death of seven astronauts is quickly degenerating into an irrational exercise in finger pointing. Within hours of the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, disgruntled characters popped out of the woodwork to blame the deaths on their favorite bogeyman.

In the three days since the accident, people have blamed the crash on budget cuts, the privatization of shuttle maintenance, the failure to invest in more manned space flight, the wasteful investment in manned space flight, the failure to build a new space plane, management ignoring flaws in the shuttle design, the absence of independent investigators in the 1986 shuttle accident, and administrators' callous use of astronauts to win public approval of large budgets.

Some of these accusations may have merit, but absolutely none of them address the fundamental cause of the shuttle's loss -- the great danger inherent to all space travel.

We hear that space travel is dangerous so often that we forget what this means. It means that whoever goes into space has to be willing to put their lives at great risk, exactly as done by the crew of the Columbia. The space shuttle has to defy gravity as it shoots hundreds of miles above the earth's surface. To harness the incredible energy necessary, its engines create an enormous controlled explosion just a few feet below the world's largest flying tank of flammable fuel. The possibilities of something going wrong are endless.

Upon re-entry, the shuttle slams into the atmosphere at 16,000 miles per hour, creating so much heat from friction that the surface of the spacecraft reaches thousands of degrees, and a plume of super-heated plasma envelops the vehicle in a giant fireball. Amazingly, this is how the vehicle is designed to work. Putting people in this environment is incredibly dangerous.

The Columbia's crew was not the first to be lost on re-entry. Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died in 1967 when his capsule crashed to earth.1 If manned space travel is to continue using the technologies of today, more deaths will certainly follow.

This begs the question, now being asked by many, whether manned space flight should continue, given the unavoidable dangers of today's space technologies. The question is terribly patronizing. If the astronauts themselves are willing to accept the risks, then nobody should second-guess them.

Attempts to improve the safety of the shuttle are misguided. The shuttle program is already so expensive -- overwhelmingly because of efforts to maintain the lives of its passengers -- that shuttle flight frequencies have had to be reduced greatly since the 1986 Challenger explosion. Spending more money within the same budget to make the spacecraft safer will mean even fewer flights. If making the shuttle safe means rarely or never using it, then what is the point of having it in the first place?

It is quite probable that the precise cause of Saturday's failure will never be known with any certainty. But even if the exact flaw could be found and fixed, it would do nothing to eliminate the countless other opportunities for vehicle failure. If the design of the space shuttle is fundamentally flawed, as some have suggested, it is only because the public is incapable of rationally accepting the dangers associated with any contemporary space vehicle.

People get so excited about space travel that ample volunteers would be willing to sign up for a one-way ticket. Unfortunately, given today's space technologies, there is a significant risk that this is exactly what a volunteer would get. In such an environment, it is perfectly reasonable for astronauts to accept great risk to themselves for the opportunity to fly in space. Americans should respect that the crew of Columbia felt so passionately about what they were doing, that they were willing to accept this risk.

Related Web Columns:

An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000

A Long Time Ago
The Flawed Vision of Star Wars
, May 18, 1999

The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998


1. 1998 World Almanac and Book of Facts, Memorable Moments in Human Spaceflight, p 170