The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

shuttle launch
While NASA is spending $2 billion to safely return the shuttle to flight, might that money be better spent on other projects by accepting the inherent risks associated with the shuttle? (credit: NASA/KSC)

Return the albatross to flight

Water, water everywhere
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere,
Ne any drop to drink.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

In The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner shoots an albatross and all the wind goes out of his sails. He draws the conclusion that the albatross was the key to the wind and metaphorically wears the albatross around his neck to represent the heavy regret of having shot the albatross. Once free of the albatross, the wind returns and the mariner is saved.

The Space Shuttle is an albatross. Let’s stop wearing it around our neck and return it to flight. The GAO reported in December that return-to-flight costs will exceed $2 billion. That is not counting the opportunity cost and national prestige cost of the missed flights that we could have lofted while we were delaying.

If return to flight takes long enough, we may have to barter future seats on the shuttle to the Russians in exchange for Soyuz seats to avoid resolving the toll of Iran on our relationship. Were I the Russians, I would sell those seats to Americans. The Futron-Zogby space tourism market study says 66% of Americans rich enough to afford orbital flights are more likely to want to fly to orbit on a US option than a Russian one. Wouldn’t that take the cake? Can you imagine having a fare-paying passenger paying the Russians for a ticket on the US space shuttle? Maybe John Glenn can fly a third time. No wonder Bush ran to resolve Iran.

The $2 billion would have been better spent on buying seven $10-million life insurance policies. That leaves over about $1.996 billion to spend elsewhere.

So let’s review the big picture of the return to flight. We have an albatross that fails approximately two percent of the time. Every 20 years, give or take, it kills seven astronauts. So the cost is a bit less than a two-percent chance of a $50-million disaster. I am using $7.1 million as the value of a human life because people will pay about $71,000 to reduce their risk of death by one percent (or about $60,000 in the year 2000 and adjusting for higher wages today.) There are some strong reservations about using the $7.1-million value since it was derived from the willingness to pay for insurance and safer products. But a one- or two-percent chance is in the sweet spot where this analysis works well. We need to add whatever the cost of replacing the shuttle is, but now we are talking about retiring the shuttle in 2010. I guess that means that the shuttle would not be replaced. It’s a reasonable case that the money that would have otherwise been spent on refurbishing and reflying the lost shuttle would be better spent on a new heavy or medium lifter. Or better yet, on commercial carriage.

So the $2 billion would have been better spent on buying seven $10-million life insurance policies for the seven astronauts on each subsequent flight. At the astronomical rates that insurers charge, that might cost $600,000 per astronaut. But that leaves about $1.996 billion. Paying for insurance for each of the about 28 flights would leave us a little less than $1.9 billion. Prepaying for all 28 flights would probably reduce the cost of the insurance to $50 million leaving us with $1.95 billion.

Maybe we could have used the money to buy another 10,000 Humvee armor kits at $58,000 each. That would leave about $1.3 billion. That would pay for almost 900,000 automatic electronic defibrillators at retail or all sorts of other life saving strategies (see “The safety lode star”, The Space Review, February 14, 2005). A strong case can be made to spend a good chunk of it on safety cost-benefit research and education so we don’t make such egregious mistakes in the future. Assuming that the fail rate is two percent upon return to flight, there is about a 50-50 chance that a third shuttle will fail before the ISS is completed. So we may be in for another round of hand-wringing abut NASA’s unsafe culture, design and so on if we don’t take the albatross by the wings.

Why is an astronaut’s life worth more than a soldier’s in Iraq? Out of about three hundred thousand troop deployments to Iraq, the survival rate is around 99.5%, and that is for long deployments. It sure costs a lot more to outfit the astronauts to save an extra seven lives than to outfit the troops to save an extra 70. But, could you have imagined Sean O’Keefe saying, “You go to space with the equipment you have”?

Why is an astronaut’s life worth more than a soldier’s in Iraq?

If the shuttle is not worth flying unsafely, it is not worth flying at all. If it is not worth risking a life to fix the Hubble with a shuttle mission or flying the shuttle now to finish the ISS, then cancel the whole shuttle program. Not flying now tells me that the value of all space activity planned by the US is worth less than the paltry two percent of the $70 million that the astronauts would gladly accept as a payment in order to undertake the risk. Senator Jake Garn argues that there would be volunteers—including himself—who would go to space in a dangerous shuttle for nothing. Given that the market price of a seat on a Soyuz flight is about $20 million, I place the typical shuttle astronaut at $19.4 million ahead. No wonder that Senators from all over the map are volunteering.

However, we just can’t stomach naming scapegoats who will die for our lousy design. So let’s treat the astronauts to some additional safety on the cheap. One of the reasons that the space shuttle is so heavy is that it does not take advantage of the dual use that we routinely hear about on airplanes: “Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.” If the next crew knows a shuttle’s carbon-carbon leading edge has a hole in it, then the shuttle will remain in orbit. Perhaps if shuttle components served a dual use as life-preserving components, we could extend the duration in space long enough for a rescue.

I really felt for the astronauts on the ISS when they had to go on a diet. That gave me an idea that perhaps ISS and shuttle components could be edible. That way the shuttle astronauts could munch on their console, seats, and so on while they were waiting for a rescue. If the wing was damaged and the information was available before main tank separation, maybe the tank could remain attached and the Shuttle could abort to orbit—it’s not like they would need their de-orbiting fuel. Instead, they could take some of the oxygen from the main fuel tank and breathe it. They could take some of the hydrogen and oxygen and use it to keep warm and run their fuel cells. They could also make some water to drink. That might keep them going long enough for a Soyuz rescue. If the dual food, oxygen, water, energy, and crew psychology hold out, perhaps they might keep going long enough for a shuttle replacement.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.