Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Death in Space: NASA Ponders Eternal Questions

Sometimes the Freedom of Information Act helps you turn up stuff that you'd almost rather not know. Mike Schneider of the Associated Press recently wrote a story about a NASA memo he obtained that way. As one of the most open agencies of our government, NASA is presumably used to operating in a fishbowl, but I would imagine that even the most open-minded of NASA's bureaucrats cringed a little when this document was made public.

The subject was how to deal with certain undesirable eventualities that might take place on a long mission such as the three-year flight to Mars that NASA plans some day. In a crew of five to ten people, somebody's likely to become ill over a three-year period, maybe even fatally ill. And on an interplanetary flight (at least one not powered by Star Trek warp drives), you can't just turn around any old time and go back. The memo goes no farther than to say that NASA needs a policy about what to do if a crew member becomes so ill that death is likely or certain, and for that matter, what to do with the body.

Another ethical conundrum the memo raises is whether a sick astronaut whose need for medical care is endangering the lives of the other astronauts should be guaranteed all the help he or she needs, or whether early "termination of benefits," so to speak, would be in the best interests of the mission.

I will give NASA credit: the memo doesn't try to answer all these questions, it just brings them up. Schneider found that NASA is working on these questions with the help of outside bioethicists, but I'm not sure that's the right approach. Here's why.

NASA is the quintessential engineering bureaucracy. Engineers and the engineering attitude pervade the institution. Engineers are used to working with inanimate objects that obey physical laws without exception. When the objects do fail in the purpose for which they are designed, it is always in accordance with those same physical laws, which is why scientific and engineering knowledge is so sought after among engineers. If you can just know enough about the physics, chemistry, dynamics, and so on, you should in principle be able to predict every possible outcome, or else design a system so that only a certain number of outcomes are possible in the first place, and deal with them in turn. Once you find that answer, it will work every time the same conditions arise. You've solved the problem.

But engineering know-how can take you only so far. The issues that the Mars-mission document addresses are not technical ones. They plumb the depths of what it means to be human and why anyone would volunteer for a dangerous three-year hike in a cold merciless vacuum in the first place.

In my view, NASA may be spending too much time and money on outside experts and perhaps not paying enough attention to the astronauts themselves. Much has been made about "The Right Stuff" and what it took in the 1960s, and what it takes now, to be an astronaut. Most of the early U. S. astronauts were former military test pilots. That is no longer a necessary qualification, although it doesn't hurt. What it takes to be an astronaut now, it seems, is a Ph. D. in something technical, a sterling resumé, and the patience of Job to wade through an arduous application procedure, and to train endlessly while waiting in line for your turn in space, which you hope will come before you hit retirement age. Is this the type of person best suited for what many people regard as mankind's greatest remaining adventure? Maybe we should look a little farther than we've looked up to now, and in a different way.

To the kind of person I'm thinking of, the advice of some bioethicist with a Ph. D. would be superfluous. True courage always knows what to do, whether it is to take a calculated risk for a great cause (which every astronaut who gets aboard a Space Shuttle already does) or to sacrifice one's life for a mission, which might well come about during a trip to Mars. Back before exploration became the business of bureaucracies, people had to be this way in order to attract support. Take the example of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, whose pioneering explorations of the Antarctic by land and air in the 1920s and '30s were financed virtually entirely by private contributions. Byrd is largely forgotten now, and recent historical discoveries concerning his claims to have flown over the North Pole in 1926 have cast doubt on their validity. But the style of the man (admittedly, reinforced by autobiographical books he published to finance his projects) was that of the courageous, risk-taking adventurer who gave technical preparation its place, true, but who then simply accepted whatever remaining risks there were as part of the job. Byrd was the closest thing the 1930s had to an astronaut: a man who went where no one had gone before, taking with him other brave souls who were willing to take chances with him.

No, Byrd took no women along, at least during his early expeditions. And yes, he nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning during one stay in the Antarctic and had to be rescued. But those kinds of risks didn't stop him from going through with several more expeditions, the last one only a couple of years before he died in 1957.

In past blogs, I have said some negative things about NASA and the Space Shuttle program, mainly that the antique shuttles ought to be retired rather than trying to squeeze a few more increasingly hazardous flights out of them. But this is not to say that we ought to simply give up on space exploration because it's dangerous. If anything, that is an excellent reason to keep trying. Only, we need to pay more attention to the character of those who we send into space, giving them much greater authority and responsibility than they currently hold in the bureaucratized system that is NASA. Columbus, Magellan, Byrd—they not only went on the voyages, they ran the whole show. Maybe the answer will come from the private sector once again, as entrepreneurs find safe and effective ways to make end runs around NASA's bureaucracy and do more with less. Of course, the government could always stop them. But the U. S. isn't the only country in the space game any more. I'd like the first man (or woman) on Mars to be a U. S. citizen, but it doesn't have to be that way. We can get there, but only if we try. And while machines can do wonderful things, running robot cars around Mars is no substitute for being there.

Sources: The article by Mike Schneider on NASA's plans for the Mars mission appeared in numerous venues, among them the Austin American-Statesman on May 6, 2007, at http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/nation/05/06/6deathinspace.html.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this post, I'm left uncertain what your primary point is (or maybe you have two).

    Are you saying that astronauts should have more authority over their missions than they do? If so, they might heartily agree. From what I've heard, starting with the original Mercury 7, the astronauts have been chronically dissatisfied about the extent to which they were just biological specimens to be put in a capsule and shot into space, like any dog or ape could have been, while all control remained with Mission Control. I think later astronauts have been given (possibly because they demanded) more "ownership" of their equipment and missions. But still, they are far from the top of the organizational chart, even though they are the ones actually doing the exploring. They may not be "spam in a can" (as the Mercury astronauts were labeled) but they aren't in charge.

    Is complexity and expense to blame? Byrd was responsible only to his backers, whose money he probably accepted only with the understanding that he was in charge. He relied on pilots and mechanics, but he was not dependent on them in the same way the astronauts are on Mission Control to tell them what to do next.

    However, their autonomy will certainly increase if they travel to Mars, won't it? If something like the Apollo 13 disaster happens in Mars orbit, the initial, crucial phase will be over by the time Mission Conttrol ever hears about it (due to the time it takes radio waves to travel that far). The question is, if they will be so much more "on their own" on the trip, will that translate into their being given more input in the planning? Seems like it SHOULD.

    Or, are you saying that we should be picking different kinds of people to be astronauts, people who are bolder, more essentially adventurous, more daring, more creative, better improvisers, more flexible? That's a good point, too. Yet, because of all that complexity, and the need for independence so far from home, we will also most certainly need highly competent technical types on a Mars trip. Can those characteristics be found combined in the same people? Or (like the casting in a typical Hollywood adventure), do we need a mix of personalities on such a trip -- a bold, flexible, innovative leader (and second in command, in case the leader's boldness gets him killed), supported by the best nerds available, for when the wiring needs to be fixed?

    If either of those was your point, I'm not sure how they relate back to your original issue, of ethical problems on a long voyage. Are you saying (and this is what I originally THOUGHT you were saying, but by the end, I wasn't sure) that instead of consulting dry, academic, perhaps OVER-academic ethicists, NASA should rely on the moral instincts of the kinds of people who volunteer for such dangerous missions in the first place -- BUT they should make sure they send the right KIND of people, the ones constitutionally suited to the demands of exploration?

    If so, maybe I got your point. Or maybe not.

    Cousin Mike

    P.S. By the way, I perhaps should note that I think space exploration is an unconstitutional use of public funds, and the government has no business wasting tax dollars on it. So I hope we never GO to Mars. But the trip DOES raise interesting ethical questions.