She Knew The Job Was Dangerous When She Took It

Sorry, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this woman:

…the situation has pitted Ms. Douceur and her family against Raytheon Polar Services, which manages the station through a contract with the National Science Foundation. Both Raytheon and the science foundation say that it would be too dangerous to send a rescue plane to the South Pole now and that Ms. Douceur’s condition is not life-threatening.

“During the winter period, extremely cold temperatures and high winds make an extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew,” said Jon Kasle, a Raytheon spokesman, “and such an extraction is considered only in life-threatening conditions.”

So, here’s my question. NASA was recently considering abandoning the International Space Station because they didn’t have a reliable lifeboat to extract astronauts in an emergency. But Amundsen-Scott is inaccessible for half of the year, every year, and yet people winter over there. Why isn’t the NSF spending billions to develop an Emergency Crew Extraction Vehicle for the south pole? Or, why are astronauts’ lives worth so much more than those of Antarctic researchers? Or is the research they’re doing on ISS worth so little that they’re unwilling to risk lives on it?

This to me is a perfect example of the irrationality of our space policy.

51 thoughts on “She Knew The Job Was Dangerous When She Took It”

  1. IIRC, Raytheon sends planes to that station roughly once a month. The big issue is not waiting 6 months for an antarctic winter to end, it’s whether Raytheon could fly in one more plane off schedule — and Raytheon’s saying NO. In effect, they’ve got an Emergency Crew Extraction Vehicle, but the people at their Houston have decided not to deploy it. Objections are being raised by people who absolutely agree that Antarctic researchers are worth as much as ISS astronauts.

    I have seem comments suggesting that Raytheon is acting as it is out of pique, because its contract will soon expire and was not renewed. I suspect people making such comments wish to criticise Raytheon, or perhaps the capitalist system. They’re probably not thinking of space policy at all.

  2. The fact is risk is part of life and being overly risk averse means stagnation. Like Col. Boyd said about pilot training, if you’re not killing some of them, you’re not doing it right.

    1. From the ranks of professional pilots, let me give you a hearty “EFF YOU” for being a douche.

      Col. Boyd was a fighter pilot, and he was talking about training for combat. Flying to pole to pick up a sick person is not combat. If you’re killing pilots in training for commercial transportation, you’re an idiot and you’re making bad pilots.

      Here are some facts: There are temp limits for operating aircraft to protect the engines, hydraulics, equipment, even the airframe. Why? Fly when it’s too cold, and suspended water in your Jet-A will freeze up and clog your filters. Your oil won’t flow enough to lubricate the engine. Hoses and seals stiffen up and crack when pressurized. Metal gets brittle and breaks when it’s put under load.

      The risk calculations for combat are completely different from those for a transportation mission. What the hell good does it do to fly a ‘rescue’ mission if you end up killing the patient and a crew on the way home?


      1. My referencing of Col. Boyd provided the context which you understood perfectly.

        So I’m just going to ignore your rudeness and thank you for the good info.

        1. However, since you did call me a jerk perhaps I should point out some other errors in your logic.

          Risk assessment doesn’t just happen in combat, it’s part of all activities. The same for operational parameters, they apply to all activities. Being too risk averse is stagnation, again in all activities which is to say, not just in combat.

          Of course you want to minimize the chance of dying in any activity. Since I never implied anything else, the jerk is the person that imputes motives that don’t exist. However, my point remains… too much risk aversion is a bad thing.

          Shall I repeat that a fourth time? or just note that morons really piss me off.

          1. “or just note that morons really piss me off”

            Your life must be a neverending cavalcade of imbecilic self-hatred, then.

            “Being too risk averse is stagnation” is a moronic statement in the context of air ambulance or regular air transportation. It ignores the reality of the actual decision-making process in an attempt to sound pithy and wise. Let me rephrase that: Not examining the conditions and applying a systematic approach to risk assessment is moronic. I impute no motives- you used a grossly inappropriate quote to suggest that an aircraft should be blithely dispatched just because “too much risk aversion is a bad thing.”

            Lets examine the actual situation at hand, rather than bandying about aphorisms. Both Raytheon and the NSF say this woman’s condition is not “life threatening.” In the article, there are no quotes from her or her family disputing that her life is not in imminent danger- they are angry she may suffer some permanent damage due to the delay in treatment. That was a RISK she took when she signed on down there.

            Assuming her condition is not life-threatening, let’s review some of the risk factors faced by several pilots and perhaps a flight attendant: They will fly several hours (three to six, depending on the aircraft- six if it’s a Twin Otter) in extreme cold (likely below -40C, the lower operational limit for a PT6A-35) at high altitude (Amundsen is at 9300 feet above sea level, higher than any commercial airport in the US except Leadville, CO, so cruise altitude will be above 10,000ft) on oxygen. Partway to the destination, they will pass a point of no return, where they are committed to Amundsen with no alternate. They would face a night or dusk landing on an unlit, snow-covered runway MADE OF ICE at the end of this flight. There is no instrument approach, so they need VFR conditions and low winds to avoid white-out conditions. At the end, they need to refuel and load without letting the engines get cold, then depart and fly another 6 hours.

            Once you pass the point of commitment, you have no options. If the the winds aloft are stronger than forecast, you run the risk of fuel exhaustion. If an engine fails enroute, you face the risk of fuel exhaustion AND hypothermia. If the weather goes IFR or the wind kicks up your only choice is to hold and hope, then make a blind approach and try to hit the ground as softly as possible. Stack all those risk factors up (and quite a few others- this is not a proper risk assessment matrix), and ask yourself if it weighs out against a non life-threating condition.

            But no, it’s much easier to say “If yer not killin’ pilots, yer not trainin’ hard enuf!!”

            Did you say there were some errors in my logic? I must have missed the bit where you pointed them out- was it buried in the buzzword bingo section or the part where you went off on a moronic tangent?

          2. Clutch, I think Ken was discussing the ISS aspect of Rand’s comment. Yes, Ken mentioned pilots, but he was responding to Rand who mentioned the lady scientist as compared to Astronauts (which some are pilots).

            Why is it that the scientist on the ground must make a life/death risk assessment but not the astronaut in space? That’s the basics of Rand’s question. Now whether or not you agree with Rand’s premise or Ken’s response; I do think you should consider that Ken isn’t asking even more people to put their lifes at risk.

            I’ll go on a limb here and suggest that when Ken mentions Ratheon being the only company with a plane; he was using sarcasm, as related to only being one spaceship provider to ISS.

            But hey, Clutch, you did a great job on the risk assessment for saving the scientist, and if it means anything, I agree with your assessment. I just think you are misunderstanding Ken.

          3. Thank you Leland for making your points. Clutch, you’ve added to the discussion here which I appreciate, but you are over reacting to my pseudo quote of Col. Boyd. Perhaps I was too terse. I do not consider myself a good communicator. I do know what I’m talking about and reasonable people can disagree.

            You imputed something false, then left reason for name calling. You’re not stupid and you could choose to understand this or not. That’s your decision.

            “Being too risk averse is stagnation” is a moronic statement in the context of air ambulance or regular air transportation.

            This assertion of yours is false and I’ve already said why. Because I didn’t go into detail is not the same as ignoring details. Don’t be stupid.

            you used a grossly inappropriate quote to suggest that an aircraft should be blithely dispatched

            No I didn’t. That’s you reading something into what I said, that I didn’t say.

            Since this post isn’t really about the woman and her situation (did you not get Rand’s and Leland’s point?) While your information is fine, it isn’t the point.

            Another way of saying it is some things are worth dying for. You can of course, disagree.

          4. To give credit where credit is due…

            Your life must be a neverending cavalcade of imbecilic self-hatred, then.

            I’m actually quite impressed with this astute observation which is mitigated by the fact that I like people… even you.

  3. How is this different from the female scientist who had breast cancer down there a few years back? Same situation with exception to the malady. Same weather difficulty. Same reaction from the public.

    Once again a lack of understanding of how the world really works from John and Mary Q. Public.

    1. Let me tell you how the world really works, Schtumpy. She’s a GIRL!! So, she’s a victim and must be rescued. The lives of the disposable sex – men – mean nothing compared to hers.

      IIRC, Ms. Breast-Cancer was extracted early.

      1. Micha,
        Jeff Lutz beat me to the answer. They still didn’t go UNTIL they could safely land.

        And on the scale of “she’s a GIRL”, I’d think breast cancer would be just about the top of the list for girlism.

      2. “She” is not a girl. I did not know this until today, but “she” actually used to be an engineer in the nuclear power plant biz who was male until about 10 or so years ago. I knew him back in the day at Comanche Peak.

    2. The difference was that they did a winter airdrop of special equipment, and they sent in a plane when the weather was “warm” enough to allow the aircraft to work. They will probably do the same thing here. Trying to put someone into the station this early in October is dangerous. Temperatures need to be around -40F consistently so that they plane doesn’t freeze up on the ground. While the sun has risen at the station, the temperatures are still around -70F, too cold for the hydraulics of a LC-130.

      1. Perhaps a Twin Otter could do the mission like it did in April 2001 for the rescue of Doctor Ronald Shemenski.

        Every aircraft has its operational envelop to include minimum temperatures. The Twin Otter is a rugged and reliable Canadian-built plane designed to handle rough conditions. It or perhaps a Russian designed plane might be the best option for the mission.

        1. Larry, even the Twin Otter will be limited at some point. I don’t know what the particulars of the weather were when Dr. Shemenski was retrieved, but currently the temp on the ground at Amundsen is around -58C, about 18 degrees below the normal minimum for a PT6A-35. A cargo drop would be more feasible- up at 12,000 feet the temp is ONLY -37, so an LC-130 shouldn’t have a problem operating in that.

          1. Absolutely agree – every plane has its limits. The Twin Otter is a rugged machine but there are temps below which it can’t fly. The article I linked to said that the April 2001 rescue had wind chill temps of -100F. That isn’t useful because wind chill factor isn’t the number we need to know but actual temperature. I couldn’t find the temperature limits for the Twin Otter online so I don’t know whether it could make the flight or not. Russian planes are also designed to operate in extreme cold conditions for obvious reasons and one of them might be a better choice, if available. Of course, they have their limits, too.

  4. I smell an article coming up.

    Rand, this is the perfect foil for you to muse on.

    My question is why they didn’t have clot-busting drugs in the base infirmary?

    1. My question is why they didn’t have clot-busting drugs in the base infirmary?

      You’d think they would. I think they’re called “aspirin.”

      OK, well, technically, that’s a blood thinner, not a clot-buster, but still, I know if I was her age in the Antarctic, I’d be taking them. And of course, I am taking them now, even though I’m not in the Antarctic.

      1. You would think a series of common stroke medicines would be somethign cheap and easy to keep on hand. I wonder, do they even have a base physician?

  5. I think the obvious way to analyze it is by assessing the risks of not flying (a doctor could provide the data based on the condition) and the pilot’s evaluation of the risks of losing the aircraft and crew.

    In any event, a South Pole extraction vehicle could use a single stage, either a solid or hypergolic liquid, with enough range to put a capsule in the ocean slightly outside the winter ice pack.

    At last a great use for a suborbital launch vehicle!

  6. Why isn’t the NSF spending billions to develop an Emergency Crew Extraction Vehicle for the south pole?

    Well, NASA isn’t exactly spending billions on an emergency extraction vehicle either.

    1. If you don’t count Orion. I think it’s still one of its mission requirements. And of course, they have spent billions on it in the past, to no avail. It remains a program requirement, currently satisfied by the Russians.

      1. If you consider one of the major design constraints for Orion is on-orbit life, and the reason for the constraint is for it to be available for emergency return; then yes, it’s an emergency extraction vehicle. Otherwise, it would work like the Shuttle (only smaller/cheaper?), drop off supplies and crew over 2 weeks and return.

  7. I agree that the need for medical evacuation from the ISS is overblown.

    The ISS lifeboats also have the function of traditional lifeboats: they provide an escape route in the event that some catastrophy renders the station uninhabitatible.

    The planners of the south pole station must be assuming that they have enough redundancy in supplies, systems, and buildings to mitigate the risk of everyone dying. The ISS planners may be assuming that the ISS cannot survive some reasonable catastrophy. I see no intrinsic reason that a space station couldn’t have such redundancy. We are certainly going to need to trust our stations if we are to settle space!

  8. u r doing it wrong.

    We’re supposed to take a post like this and posit a method whereby private space companies can do it faster, cheaper, -and- better.

    So… how vulnerable is a rocket filled with cryogenic fuels to the cold, really? And just how crucial is the weather to a rocket? That is: not to the job of keeping accurate positioning on the rocket, but to the actual integrity of the rocket. And note this is an emergency vehicle. The general criteria for lifeboats when you’re climbing in is: “Well, it isn’t sinking -yet-, so it’s a vast improvement.”

  9. I wonder if there’d be such a fuss if the person suffering the stroke was a guy. Well, maybe his mom would still make a webpage called “” but if the guy didn’t give the impression that he gave out an “oh mom, come on at least once, you know you’d hear undertones of “what a pussy” in any discussion of the issue. But a lady gets the NYT writing about her. I love how Our Betters In Media are all “oh Lord let men and women be treated equally, but not yet” when it comes to sensational stories.

  10. Sadly, the likely end result of this will be that the criteria for residing at the South Pole will be tightened to not include people at risk for age related conditions — granted, a stroke can occur at any time, but predominantly occur in older individuals. This means that qualified people will denied such opportunities because one person couldn’t abide by the common sense risks that obviously apply to living at such a remote outpost.

    1. One of the commenters at the NYT article said, “When we wintered over at the South Pole in 1980, the oldest crew member was just barely 40. In the last several years some kind of change in policy has allowed older people to winter over.”

      So they’d be re-establishing criteria they originally had, which would have prevented this situation.

  11. My question is why they didn’t have clot-busting drugs in the base infirmary?

    I wonder if the ISS stock of pharmaceuticals includes such drugs? Who do we ask to find out?

    1. I don’t know for certain that the ISS has the drugs, but I do know the astronauts are trained to push such drugs. Then again, for stroke, Aspirin works fairly well, and I suspect it’s available.

  12. It should be noted that this would not be a winter extraction, as the South Polar winter ended September 22nd. And if it really were an emergency, they would have had Kenn Borek Air fly down from Calgary, just as they did back in April 2001.

  13. One thing is certain. Those hang wringing are ill equipped to be in charge of making any serious effort to leave the planet. A private venture would self select for the right kind of people willing to balance risk and reward.

  14. Actually the policy is very rational. If someone dies at the South Pole it is reported, if at all, on Page 20. If someone dies on the ISS it is Page 1 and there are congressional investigations.

  15. I don’t think the comparison quite holds. You can survive in Antarctica just fine (if not comfortably) if you can figure out shelter, heating, and food.

    You cannot survive in vacuum.

    As for this woman, I sympathize, but she had this stroke several months ago; presumably she has passed up several opportunities to fly back since? Why is this so pressing now?

    Re: the aspirin thing someone said awhile back, they do decrease your chance of stroke, but it’s hardly 100% effective; otherwise nobody would ever be put on coumadin. Without knowing anything about this woman’s medical situation I’m not ready to accuse her of being irresponsible. Doctors have strokes too.

    1. Actually, the issue, Jvon, is that there haven’t been any flights, because it’s been too cold. Raytheon isn’t scheduled to send a flight in for another week or two, until they feel it’s safe enough to fly in and out, but she doesn’t want to wait that extra time.

  16. The problem is the Hero status of cosmonautes, the day they relinquish that and become like sea-farers more progress will be done.

  17. Regarding clot-busting drugs; the problem is that there are two types of stroke. Give clotbusters to someone who’s had a haemmorhagic stroke and that person is dead.

    There is also a significant risk of haemmorhaging elsewhere.

    1. Good point.

      Antarctica would seem like a good candidate for the application of telemedicine and robotic surgery, but I know a little something about the latency, lack of bandwidth, and over-the-horizon problems the comms people face there…

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