How Delaying Commercial Crew Is Deadly

Jon Goff says that it could cost thousands of lives:

Just shaving 36 hours off of the availability date of commercial crew could potentially save more lives than would be lost in the worst case Commercial Crew crash. Even if expediting the process, dropping many of the NASA Human Rating requirements, dropping some of the abort tests, and sticking with Space Act Agreements instead of FAR Contracts really meant a massive decrease in actual safety (I don’t think it would) to say a 5% chance of losing a crew on a given flight, over the course of the ISS’s life you would have saved hundreds of times more US lives by taking that course than you would potentially risk in astronaut lives.

I’ll have to incorporate this thought into the book. I made the point, but not quantitatively, just that our approach is an indicator of how unimportant ISS research is, despite NASA lip service.

This is the problem that Bastiat described. Loss of crew is very publicly visible, while the people who die are anonymous and unknown to all except those closest to them, and their deaths aren’t understood to be a result of flawed government policy. This is the same problem that the FDA has, so it ends up inhibiting innovation, destroying jobs and killing people lest it be blamed for letting people die through underregulation.

24 thoughts on “How Delaying Commercial Crew Is Deadly”

  1. This is a problem that can’t be fixed as long as the government has responsibility to regulate because they will be held accountable only for the seen by the voting public. The only solution is to divorce them of this responsibility.

  2. The seen verses unseen of course applies to more than space. FDA regulators have little incentive to approve a product because no one gets punished for saying “no.” On the other hand, if they approve a product and something goes wrong (see 1-800-Baddrug lawyer commercials) then they might be held accountable in some way.

    Likewise, some 4000 Americans die each year due to food poisoning. Many of those lives could be saved if food irradiation was used to kill the bacteria. However, because someone somewhere might somehow become sick someday from food irradiation, they’re willing to let thousands die needlessly each year (and that’s just in America).

  3. Which of course also raises the question of how many lives could be saved if the Biotech industry had access to Dragonlab in 2011 instead of 2014, the most recently promised launch. But since those are only for-profit commercial customers developing drugs in a for-profit setting I guess it doesn’t count in the equation for the ISS huggers 🙂

    1. As far as I’m aware, there’s exactly zero interest.

      Apparently these biotech experiments need to be human tended.. or SpaceX is just horrible at sales. Both could be true also.

      1. Trent,

        Sure they are, now. The Biotech industry like most commercial industries works on a research cycle that is measured in weeks and months. They are not able to mark years waiting in a holding pattern like space tourists and the government. There were at least a dozen paying biotechs interested in the 2011 flight, but the COTS triggered delays until 2014 (and counting) and required the biotechs to move on as they had employees to pay and businesses to run. They simply couldn’t afford to wait untold years for a flight, not if they want to stay in business. So basically there is no interest because they have given up on SpaceX, just as they did with the broken promises on microgravity research for the Shuttle and ISS .

        As for ISS, yes those experiments need to be human tended because it is the ISS. However the ISS is just not suitable for the needs of the commercial biotech firms again because of the long cycle times. Suppose a biotech researcher wants to send an experiment to ISS. First they have to go through a selection process that takes about a year, then a safety review that takes a year, then built it and train an astronaut to run it, add another year. Then it flies and the results are returned to Earth, add about another year. Four years total for an industry with research cycles where four months is considered long. It is just too long, especially for small firms, to be waiting for results. Add in problems like vibrations and restrictions because of astronaut safety and it is just not worth it.

    2. SpaceX seems to be pretty busy lately, maybe it is a good thing they are not too focused on Dragon Lab right now.

      1. Wodun,

        Yes, who needs commercial customers when they have government contracts to pay the bills.

        1. All business’s with limited supply have to choose which customers to service. Should they have tossed away $1.6b? Would the pharms have given them 20 flights in 3 to 5 years to equal that? Could they have even flown at that rate?

          1. Ken,

            Thank you! You have just confirmed what I have been saying all along, that COTS/CRS/CCP/Commercial Crew has delayed the opening of commercial markets in space instead of accelerating them.

            And to link it to the topic this thread, in doing so has delayed by many years possible life saving cures and treatments thereby costing the lives of untold numbers of patients.

          2. Not so fast. It has accelerated development at SpaceX. Which means when the government doesn’t take 1/3 of the manifest more will be available for private ventures.

            It is the correct policy for SpaceX to grow faster when possible.

            We are about to see an explosion of private ventures. Inspiration Mars is just tip of the iceberg. My feeling is the only thing Musk is doing wrong is not opening launch facilities faster, but then that is cost only at this point.

  4. I dunno… Can someone actually point at a legitimate medical breakthrough that has occurred so far from experiments in micro-gravity? While there are things we will clearly learn, I’m not sure that knowledge is terribly useful for people on Earth. (It is clearly important for understanding how spaceflight impacts biology)

    I think this is a dangerous tangent to use to justify human spaceflight, it could easily be shot down.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. If we really dug into cost-effectiveness for biotech, the cost of even a tiny amount of ISS research could pay for a whole, whole lot of Earthside lab time and facilities.

      I think the approach would more likely call into question the claims that biological experiments on the ISS will produce huge benefits back on Earth. Eventually they might, but for that to become a routinely predictable outcome, the orbital facilities devoted to serious biological experiments (involving drug testing instead of broccoli sprouts) will have to be a whole lot bigger than a grad-student’s apartment (or even his closet).

      This falls right into the lap of NSF or CDC scientists who would be happy to explain why they’re not heavily funding research on the ISS.

        1. Edward,

          Yep, and these folks at NASA Ames basically were “brokering” the deals between SpaceX and the biotechs, until SpaceX decided to focus on ISS and put Dragonlab on hold as a result.

    2. A new form of interferon discovered aboard ISS is now used for treating Hepatitis C, which affects 3% of the wordld’s population and kills 350,000 per year.

      The interferon crystals survived the Columbia accident even though the crew didn’t — which disproves the old saw that cargo is always less valuable than crew.

      1. Edward,

        Yes, just imagine the the biotech advances if there were frequent and reliable Dragonlab flights available.

  5. Larry J – IMHO your example of food irradiation is questionable at best. It is at least possible that widespread use of irradiated food would kill more people than it saves; they would simply die of something different and less traceable to the cause. Irradiation produces large amounts of toxic chemicals and free radicals, and destroys vitamins. Thus making various degenerative diseases more likely.

    The real solution to the potential problem of food poisoning due to ingestion of contaminated processed food is, of course, to eat real food instead of processed muck – and, of course, to cook it properly. Which leads to another point; how many of those 4000 deaths are due to poor food handling hygiene and inadequate cooking, and how many of those could be prevented by attention to training in same during children’s education?

    Two more points. First, the potential litigation risk could be curbed by getting America’s lawyers under control – which is long overdue. (Ditto the ones in the UK, though not quite as much.) And a vaguer point; space exploration and settlement are the exploitation of a new frontier. To use an imperfect analogy, what was the mortality rate among the pioneers who opened up the American West?

    1. Fletcher,

      Even more, look at the mortality rate of the early American colonists, or even among 18th Century sailors like your namesake. There was a reason they took HMS Bounty over and returned to the islands.

    2. Food irradiation has been tested and used for decades. But to you, the chance that someone somehow may someday get sick is too high, while thousands are actually dying. You are displaying the same Luddite phobia that killing millions of people over hyped up scares of genetically modified food such as Golden Rice.

    3. Again the solution is to give people the option and let them choose for themselves. Informed consent (rather than regulating everybody) should be the default premise.

      1. Ken,

        I agree. Require proper labeling and let the free market decide what it prefers to buy.

        1. Require proper labeling

          With caveats. I don’t need to see warning labels on every banana telling me it’s a radiation hazard. It’s enough they aren’t allowed to lie on the label (but they skirt the truth as it is.) Let the free market decide is exactly right (does a free market exist?)

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