NASA takes the lives of its astronauts very, very seriously. Dr. Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars (which advocates for a one-way trip to Mars with reliance on local resources for a return), argues that the premium NASA places on safety is crippling the agency, and that "the mission has to come first."
It's conceptually difficult to put a dollar value on the life of a person, but Zubrin's argument is this: NASA almost didn't send a shuttle to fix the Hubble Space Telescope because there was a documented one chance in 50 of vehicle failure. That's a 2% chance of killing seven people, which works out to a 14% chance of killing one person. Hubble is a $4 billion asset, from which Zubrin infers that NASA values the life of one astronaut at about $28 billion. This is a lot.
To get a little bit of perspective on both the risk and NASA's safety valuation, let's take a look at the space shuttle. The shuttle was estimated by the engineers involved in designing, constructing and maintaining it to have a probability of failure with loss of vehicle and human life at about one in 100. Before the Challenger disaster, NASA management estimated the same probability at one in 100,000, but after a total of 135 shuttle launches with two catastrophic failures, even the engineers may have been a bit optimistic.
We mention all this to emphasize how dangerous space travel really is. That, and also to illustrate how NASA management (the people who make budgetary and mission decisions) aren't always in agreement with NASA engineering about the overal risk to the astronauts, implying that NASA's high-level risk assessment may not even be based on reality. Of course, the numbers in the previous paragraph (taken from Richard Feynman's report on the Challenger disaster) are from several decades ago, but the Columbia Accident Investigation Board noted that a similar disconnect between engineers and management contributed to the loss of that shuttle, as well.
Obviously, safety is and should be important. What's being looked at here is how far NASA can reasonably pursue safety versus the amount of risk we're willing to take on to achieve new heights. So the question, really, is this: What amount of resources is it reasonable to allocate to attaining a reasonable amount of safety? Even if a figure like $28 billion per astronaut (including the cost of the training, the vehicle, etc) isn't reasonable, there are no clear rules as to how much a human life is worth — although that hasn't prevented various values from being assigned. Here's Stan V. Smith, an economist that the New York Times spoke to a couple years ago:
The average [value of a life], Mr. Smith figures, is around $4 million. Mr. Smith says that people unknowingly set a value on their own lives by what they are willing to pay to reduce their everyday risk of death. Say a certain home safety feature costs $50. If research shows that for every 100,000 of those devices in use, one life is saved, then the implied value of that life is $5 million. The more people are willing to pay for safety features, the more they are implicitly valuing their lives. Mr. Smith has calculated value-of-life figures for numerous purchases, based on their costs and how much they reduce the risk of death.
- PURCHASED ITEMS AND IMPLIED VALUE OF ONE LIFE:
- Automotive air bags: $598,463
- Smoke detectors: $628,618
- Auto safety features: $4,198,517
- Top-grade tires: $6,031,019
Astronauts would have a gigantic list all to themselves, featuring safety systems that are very expensive but highly effective at increasing the likelihood of survival for a very small group of people.
Another way to look at the value of a life is to use the same metrics as the fund to compensate families of those killed on 9/11. On average, families were paid about $2 million, but the exact amount ranged from about $800,000 to over $6 million, depending on various factors such as pain and suffering, which was worth $250,000 plus $100,000 for each surviving spouse and child. To give just one more example, as of 2009, the military set aside just under $2 million for a family of a soldier (married with three children) who was killed in Iraq.
The point of all these numbers is try and show just how much money NASA spends on keeping its astronauts safe(er). If NASA were to just assign the worth of the life of an astronaut at, say, $10 million, how much more science and exploration would then be possible? Even setting the bar at $100 million — or as high as $1 billion — would result in a huge increase in resources.
On the other hand, having accidents in space has a huge detrimental effect on NASA as a whole. It's not fair, but that's the way it is: when NASA loses a shuttle with seven astronauts on board, it's not the same thing as the military losing a helicopter with seven soldiers on board. This would suggest that unmanned missions might be a more efficient way to explore space, but it's also true that there's nothing quite as inspiring as having humans explore something new.
Ultimately, NASA is going to have to make some tough choices here. Under constant pressure to perform and with a budget that almost never gets appreciably increased, the agency has become increasingly focused on safety. Again, there's nothing wrong with safety, and in a world without budgets and economies we'd take every precaution we could, but the fact is that space exploration is inherently dangerous, and astronauts know this. As Gus Grissom said:
"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 risk of life."
Watch Zubrin make his point in the video below.