NASA's Greatest Challenge - Harder Than Climbing Any Mountain

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An interesting exchange "NASA's Griffin: 'Humans Will Colonize the Solar System'" was published in the 25 September 2005 edition of the Washington Post. In this piece NASA Administrator Mike Griffin speaks expansively and enthusiastically of humanity's destiny when it comes to moving out to explore the solar system - and beyond. He also tries to place what NASA does in context of other things that our government pays for. It is quite clear that he has been thinking about this for a long time.

In so doing, Griffin comes close, but totally misses the core issue as to why NASA's exploits often fall flat on the taxpaying public. His comments focus on what he wants - or what he sees as America's future in space. Of course, he is the person being interviewed, so that is to be expected - to a point. Yet, his comments don't reflect what the American public wants or sees.

Alas, Griffin dismisses the public's viewpoint outright in one instance - blaming the status quo on people who work at NASA - and some people he has recently fired. His comments totally omit any consideration of the notion that what NASA wants to do might not be what the people paying the bills want it to do. Nor does he seem to realize that people think what they think - regardless of what he thinks they should be thinking - and that it is up to NASA to adapt to that reality.

If NASA wants to reconnect with the public and enjoy enhanced public and political support, NASA needs to work to bring people along to a new appreciation of what space exploration is really about - but this has to be done with society's viewpoint as a starting point - not NASA's.

Consider this excerpt:

"POST: Americans seem to demand that space travel be absolutely safe, that no one will die. Is that unrealistic?

GRIFFIN: Incredibly so . . . It is a risky activity.

POST: And people in this country don't seem prepared to accept that?

GRIFFIN: Correct. Now, part of the country doesn't seem prepared to accept it because generations of upper-level NASA managers have tried to characterize the shuttle as routine and safe, and it is not routine, and other than in the sense that a mountain climber would use the word, it's not safe. Mountain climbing is an activity that's riskier than flying on the shuttle. If we elect to go climb Mount Everest, the odds are 10 percent we're going to die. That's riskier than getting on board the shuttle. Okay? But most other things are not.

We want to learn how to make it safe. We believe that one day we can . . . but it is like the early days of airplane flight. That is what it is."

With regard to Griffin's comment about "generations of upper-level NASA managers" - I have to say this is deceptive arm waving. A "generation" is usually a significant period of time - 20 years or more. The shuttle has only been flying for 25 years - perhaps one generation and part of another. Indeed, if entire generations of NASA managers were at fault, then why did Griffin only fire the top two human spaceflight managers - and simply promote those beneath him?

The truth is, the issue at hand is cultural and is pervasive - going beyond just one group of NASA employees. Firing people doesn't fix the problem - it just kicks the problem down the road. And what does Griffin do to the large, agency-wide study (BST), which sought to actually try to understand and then shift these undesirable cultural behaviors? He cancels the contract.

As for the inherent risks in human space exploration, and other activities such as mountaineering, Griffin has touched on something important albeit in a somewhat simplistic manner. If you look at the actual statistics that document the risk to those who actually stand on the summit of Mt. Everest, some trends appear which Griffin did not touch upon. From 1922 - 1952, during 4 attempts, everyone died - 100% lethality. Things got better in 1953 when Norgay and Hillary made it to the top - and no one died that year. In 1973, 10 people summited Everest - and 1 died - a 10% lethality for that year.

Over time, as greater numbers of people summited, that rate dropped. There were some alterations in that trend - such as in 1982 when 18 people summited and 11 died - a lethality of 61%. Yet, over the following decades, the risk of death dropped. In 2001, 182 people summited - and only 5 died. That's a lethality of 2.7%.

Looking at the numbers it would seem that the act of climbing Everest, while still fraught with the very real threat of death, has gotten safer as more people have climbed. Yet there are some years where proportionately large numbers of deaths made it look especially lethal followed by periods of even safer climbing.

This sounds a lot like the Shuttle program. There have been 2 lethal shuttle flights out of a total of 114 - a lethality of 1.75%. I would suggest that both activities are much more similar in their lethality and inherent risk than Griffin would have you know. Yet there are differences.

One of the most interesting differences is how society deals with risk and loss of life. When someone dies climbing Everest, the news of that tragedy is minimal and transient. The story usually mentions the amount of stamina, skill, and determination required to attempt such a task. Yet when 7 people die in a shuttle accident - heroes in service to their nation and all humanity - the impact echoes in the media for years with lots of finger pointing, cynicism, and simplistic analysis.

Society seems to view the two activities differently, even if the risk is similar in a general sense.

Why?

When America first sent humans to the moon in the 1960s, it did so in a time when many firsts - artificial satellites, climbing Everest, heart transplants, diving to great ocean depths - were relatively recent events. Others - solo flights around the world etc. lay years in the future. Apollo's imminent journeys to the moon were often portrayed in the same exciting way that grand expeditions to the Himalayas and other unknown places were described.

Now people see spaceflight as too risky and expensive, question its intrinsic value, and look at NASA's new charge to return to the moon as a repeat performance of something done half a century earlier. Yet people still see value (of one sort or another) in risk taking. Witness the rise of so-called "extreme sports" and various reality TV shows. And look at the heroic acts of those people responding to 9/11 and recent hurricanes. People understand risk - they just don't seem to appreciate where NASA's exploits fit in terms of relative risk.

Someone needs to have a conversation with the public about what NASA does, why it does it, and how it does it.

NASA's greatest challenge in the years ahead is not technical - or even fiscal. Rather, it is in reconnecting (once again) what it does with what people see as being important - more important than doing other things that also compete for scarce tax dollars. In many ways NASA needs to catch up to where society has gone. It needs to not only be relevant, it needs to be perceived by people as being relevant. Alas, perception and reality are not necessarily the same thing. That is the hard part.

Moreover, you can't just tell people what things are good for them. Just because Mike Griffin thinks his plan is logical - one based upon a Presidential speech - doesn't mean that people are going to agree and give him (and his successors) a blank check for another decade or more. NASA needs to be something people truly see as being necessary. People need to want it - they don't need to be told to take what NASA wants to give them.

NASA needs to check on its relevancy and connectivity with the public at least once a day - and adjust accordingly. If NASA doesn't do this it won't be sending people back to the moon - or anywhere else. In a post-9/11, hurricane and tsunami threatened world, this is going to be quite a challenge since threats to our families and homes assault our senses - and wallets - on a daily basis.

NASA needs to have a conversation with people other than the usual suspects. This conversation needs to start not with talking points or op eds. Rather, it needs to start with NASA listening - and observing.

NASA is not listening right now. Instead, NASA is doing all the talking.


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