The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

While some seek to regulate the risk associated with flying in commercial suborbital spacecraft, it might be far riskier not to allow such flights at all. (credit: J. Foust)

The safety lode star

Last week, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) introduced legislation that would require FAA to protect the safety of suborbital passengers (albeit conceding the “inherently risky nature” of suborbital space flight). He repeats that HR 5382 ushered in an era of “tombstone mentality” where we wait for an accident before regulating.

The Congressman’s name reminds me of the Oversoul in The Call of Earth and Earthborn by Orson Scott Card. The Oversoul had orbiting satellites—I’ll call them overstars—that used mind control to prevent anyone from ever achieving spaceflight. I do not think I will spoil the ending too much to say that the Oversoul was losing its grip and spaceflight was achieved. (This paragraph proves that I am not above ad homophone attacks.)

Turning the “Space vs. Butter” (The Space Review, August 16, 2004) debate around, shouldn’t the Congressman from Minnesota consider some better options to try to save people from themselves:

  • Heart attacks are the leading cause of death. The FDA recently approved automatic electronic defibrillators that in my estimation could easily save 100,000 lives (one-seventh of the 2000 total) if deployed in everyone’s house. Why not require everyone have one in his or her house? Mass production might cause the price to come down from about $1,500 to $150 especially if people have to sign a liability waiver before they buy one. It’s a great Valentine’s Day present. I got my wife one last year.
  • Maybe cancer deaths would drop if we cut coal radiation emissions in half. (See “Revisiting Project Orion”, The Space Review, January 24, 2005)
  • Influenza and pneumonia cause another 60,000 deaths. Maybe if flu shots were required for everyone, it would cause fewer deaths.
  • Car accidents kill more than 40,000 per year. Perhaps if roads were taxed more and airplanes were subsidized more, we could have fewer car accidents. Indeed, there are 20 times as many car accidents as “water, air and space” accidents.
Space supremacy will be taken for granted until it is lost.

Of course, I wield a two-edged sword. Why not scrub the NASA budget and use the money to buy ten million defibrillators? (By the way, it almost makes me think that someone read my “Space vs. butter” column before rejiggering which subcommittee the NASA budget ended up in.) While I might throw some of the social security surplus toward defibrillators, the answer is that space is more valuable than human life.

There are some things worth dying for. We can argue about whether a democratic Iraq was worth more than a thousand American lives lost. However, the space supremacy we won since Vietnam has saved millions of lives with GPS ordinance guidance, unit navigation, satellite communications, satellite data, satellite surveillance, and the unsung hero, satellite news. These have helped in reducing the number of deaths compared to the 5,300,000 lives lost in the Vietnam War, including 58,245 inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Some of the least conservative body counts only get to 100,000 in Iraq.

Space supremacy will be taken for granted until it is lost. Call me a patriot, but hopefully it will only be lost briefly, over a small part of the sky. Space supremacy is definitely worth dying for.

Getting off Earth and colonizing other worlds is worth dying for. In addition to almost doubling the chances that our species will be immortal, colonization will invigorate the human spirit, and push the limits of creativity, knowledge and culture.

Point-to-point intercontinental ballistic passenger service is worth dying for. If we can go ten times as fast in international flights, we can save 90% of the time spent traveling 68 billion kilometers last year, or thousands of years traveling at more than 10,000 km/h instead of less than 1,000 km/h.

Regulation may cause us to miss enough steps to lose our inheritance in space, our dominance in space, and someday our freedom.

I think space adventure travel is worth dying for not only because of the inspiration to the survivors, like those who come back from Everest, but because of the bright future these pioneers will lead us toward, and because of the dynamic and secure future they promise to help us achieve. I am not worried that Rep. Oberstar will ban skiing, skydiving, and hang gliding. I am worried that regulation may cause us to miss enough steps to lose our inheritance in space, our dominance in space and someday our freedom.

So thank you Congressman Oberstar. Thank you for inoculating us against these scleroses before they become unmanageable. Thank you for showing us the fallacy of the primrose path of safety before the stakes get too high. Thank you for deepening our self-knowledge of our tombstone mentality. Perhaps it is you who has a more dangerous tombstone mentality and will not wake up until our satellites have been shot down, an asteroid bears down on us or we see a foreign flag being broadcast from Mars.