The Hazards Of Scientific Research

A plane has gone down with three on board in Antarctica.

How could they have let them fly in that kind of weather? NASA would never have taken such a risk, because space research is much less important than Antarctic research.

[Update a few minutes later]

So, if they don’t survive, will Antarctic researchers shut down all operations until they’ve had a national commission investigate it, perhaps for years? That’s what NASA/Congress would do.

In my book, I go through the litany of the number of problems they’ve had at Scott-Amundsen Station, and conclude:

…despite all of these problems, one of them fatal (and Nielsen might have lived longer had she gotten better treatment sooner) there has never been a call by anyone to spend billions of dollars on a unique specialized emergency vehicle to provide 24/7/365 access to and from the Antarctic station, though given sufficient resources some clever engineers could probably come up with such a thing. And unlike NASA, the National Science Foundation has (sensibly) never gotten those kinds of resources. Because we recognize that sometimes research is worth taking risks for, and that the lives of the researchers do not have infinite value, or even billions of dollars worth of value. Except, inexplicably, when it comes to space research.

I may add this incident to the book.

11 thoughts on “The Hazards Of Scientific Research

  1. Sigivald

    The weather described is at the crash site at the surface; it’s not clear that the crazy winds and heavy snow exist at flight altitude – or even if the heavy clouds are up there.

    It might well have been fine weather at flight altitude, and there was just a mechanical failure… (certainly the report doesn’t suggest heavy weather in the air as Very Likely The Cause, which omission leads me to believe it wasn’t present).

    (But heavy clouds? Not really a thing. I’d hope anyone flying in Antarctica was IFR trained…)

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      My comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. No, there’s no reason to think at this point that it was caused by weather, but simply flying in such weather with the risk of mechanical problems is more hazardous than NASA would allow for its astronauts (e.g., the degree to which they tried to avoid the possibility of an abort in the north Atlantic for OSP).

      1. Thomas Matula

        Rand,

        True, but also remember that none of the spaceflight were really time critical as is the case with many aircraft flights. Yes, some flights had tight launch windows, but if they missed one there was always another.

        So if there is no rush why add to the risk by going into bad weather? Especially when the equipment being risked is so expensive with billions invested and few options for replacement?

  2. Leigh Kimmel

    Also, the scientists at the Antarctic research station are relatively obscure, pretty much anonymous outside their own fields. Thus their deaths, while heartbreaking for their families and colleagues, aren’t going to be perceived as a National Tragedy, any more than any of the various people who die doing various other risky things like mountain-climbing, or flying private planes, or just driving on the highway.

    As I wrote in my review of Robert A Heinlein’s Space Cadet, I’m beginning to wonder if the place where our space program went wrong WRT handling risk wasn’t Columbia, or Challenger, or even Apollo I, but when we made the Mercury Seven into celebrities just for having been selected to be astronauts.

    1. cthulhu

      Tom Wolfe’s analogy of single-combat warriors is still applicable: if an astronaut dies, we lose the battle…

      1. Leigh Kimmel

        You may be onto something there. It’s not just celebrity — when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a wreck on turn four of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the whole NASCAR community was thrown into mourning, and you still see rear-view window stickers of his distinctive #3 with a halo on it. But the season’s races weren’t cancelled while they studied the cause of the accident and developed the new safety gear. It was just understood that motorsports are dangerous, and that some drivers, even the big stars of racing, would be involved in fatal crashes.

        But if astronauts are seen as Champions in a trial by combat, as in a sense embodiments of America, it’s understandable how even people who would never consciously practice sympathetic or contagious magic would feel as if their lives are infinitely precious, that we must strive to the utmost to ensure their safety. If this is the case, we’re going to need to find some way to uproot this meme, and I don’t know how to do it, for the simple reason that most people aren’t aware of the magical aspect of the meme of the Champion and of trial by combat, in spite of being quite familiar with many of the key cultural narratives of it in myth and legend, in folklore, in the Bible, in early modern fiction.

        1. Thomas Matula

          Leigh,

          That may have been true during Project Apollo, but the world has changed greatly since then. And will change even more when space tourism expands beyond the occasional flight to the ISS. Its hard to look at them as champions when anyone who is able to buy a ticket flies.

          Which brings up a question, should space tourists even be considered as astronauts and get astronauts wings? After all airline passengers don’t get pilot wings, unless you count the toy wings that used to be given to kids :-)

  3. Thomas Matula

    Actually the reason is simple for anyone familiar with behavioral science. Its called habituation.

    Aircraft accidents happen all the time so folks stopped paying attention decades ago, even to major ones.

    By contrast spacecraft accidents with lost of life occur only about once a decade or so, so its unusual and gets folks attention. When folks start getting killed in spacecraft as often as in aircraft folks will stop paying attention.

    1. Leigh Kimmel

      Which would mean that we need a major increase in the number of spaceflights. It would also mean that, even as the absolute number of accidents go up, the ratio of accidents to successful flights makes them actually statistically rare. If you’re doing a whole lot of something, the occasional mishap, even a fatal one, is perceived as small in proportion to the ones that make it home without incident. (It’s the same reason why a high volume seller on Amazon or eBay can weather the occasional sorehead who’s unwilling to be pleased and gives them a negative, while it can be devastating to someone who sells ten or twenty items a month).

      Also, a higher volume of space traffic would create a lot more likelihood that we’d see disasters in which there were at least some survivors, just like we have airline crashes in which there are survivors. Disasters in which the spacecraft makes it back damaged, but at least some of the astronauts survive will make space travel seen in a different light than a situation in which it’s all or nothing.

      I’ve seen a very interesting alternate timeline in which one of the distinctive differences is several of their Mercury launches experiencing booster failures, but the escape tower getting the spacecraft and astronaut safely away, and as soon as a fresh Mercury stack is on the pad, the astronaut gets another shot. There’s even a little humor in the scene where Gordon Cooper punches out of a bad launch and afterward, Deke Slayton tells him, “Gordo, I’ve never seen you move so fast.” Obviously, with no way to turn the theory of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics into actual technology to view other timelines, there’s no way to be sure the writer was correct about this situation leading to a more robust space program and greater willingness to take risks, but it sounds like it would be plausible.

      1. Thomas Matula

        Leigh,

        Exactly. When spacecraft are common and spaceflight routine so will the treatment of accidents be routine.

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