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Risk and Exploration
Why We Explore

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of essays on exploration by NASA's Chief Historian, Steven J. Dick.

How much risk should individuals and institutions take in the pursuit of exploration?

It is a question that has been asked throughout history, and at NASA every day, most recently with the deliberations following the Columbia Space Shuttle accident (+ View Return to Flight Page) and the cancellation of the Hubble Space Telescope shuttle servicing mission (+ Read More). At the end of September 2004 various aspects of the question were pondered at NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe'sSymposium on "Risk and Exploration: Earth, Sea and the Stars." Held at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the gathering brought together a variety of risk takers, ranging from mountain climbers to deep-sea divers and astronauts, and several speakers who addressed history.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld on Hubble Servicing Mission Image left: Astronaut John Grunsfeld at work during the last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, in March of 2002. Photo credit: NASA.

One of the organizers was NASA's own chief scientist, John Grunsfeld (bio), who knows something about risk. A veteran of four shuttle flights, and a mountain climber, he is the last man to touch the Hubble Space Telescope on its last servicing mission. The meeting was intended to draw on a wide variety of experience inside and outside NASA in order to illuminate the question risk and reward in exploration.

The Administrator posed the challenge on the first day: knowing that a creative society should not forsake exploration, and knowing this means undertaking bold ventures, how do we balance risk and rewards?

In opening remarks on public perception of risk, CNN science correspondent Miles O'Brien noted that the public is not risk averse, and that minimizing risk means minimizing public interest. Numerous speakers emphasized that risk is everywhere, whether in marriage, investing, or aboard a spacecraft. All agreed that risk should be mitigated to the extent possible. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell (bio) pointed out that there is also a risk of too much mitigation, which he thought was the case on his Gemini VII flight.

The challenge: Knowing that a creative society should not forsake exploration, and knowing this means undertaking bold ventures, how do we balance risk and rewards?
Lovell discussed the bold decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon in December, 1968, only three months after Apollo 7 had circled the Earth. And he described the harrowing experiences of his crew when an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 servicing module exploded 200,000 miles from Earth, forcing the crew to use the lunar module as a lifeboat (see his book "Lost Moon"). Lovell emphasized that events leading to the Apollo 13 explosion actually began many years earlier when decisions were made about the Apollo power system and thermostat, emphasizing that a heritage of risk can build up over many years.

Similarly, astronauts Shannon Lucid (bio) and Michael Foale (bio) recounted their experiences aboard the aging Mir Space Station, and the risks they grappled with every day in the face of the unexpected. And Mike Gernhardt (bio), a veteran of four shuttle missions, discussed the risk-reward equation in more mathematical terms, and in personal terms of whether a 25% decompression sickness was an acceptable risk for EVA (extravehicular activity, or spacewalk).

Jack Stuster, an anthropologist specializing in human factors, and the author of "Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration," brought historical depth to the subject with a discussion of voyages from Lewis and Clark to Arctic and Antarctic exploration. He argued that some of these expeditions might serve as models for future long-duration human space missions.

Laurence Bergreen, author of the recently published "Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe," pointed out that on September 6, 1522 when the battered ship Victoria returned to Spain, only one of five ships and 18 of 260 crew members had survived the search for the Spice Islands -- and Magellan was not one of them. This is obviously an unacceptable level of risk today, especially in pursuit of something as mundane as spices (even though the economic value of cloves was analogous to oil today). But it points out that the acceptance of risk changes with time and culture. And, as one participant pointed out, "Exploration is a spice more valuable than cloves."

Other speakers described the risks of looking for life in extreme environments, whether in water under the Antarctic ice, inside lava tubes, deep caves, or in high altitude lakes in the Andes exceeding 20,000 feet.

NASA's Nathalie Cabrol described the harrowing experience of diving without oxygen in these icy lakes, with her heartbeat lowering to 39 beats per minute. She pointed out that in addition to being valuable for astrobiology, the data is also valuable for heart research. These explorers daily consider the risk and payoff equation in a most personal way. One of the continual themes was that too much focus on a goal can cause safety to be compromised.

High altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs recounted how on one of his expeditions to the top of Mt. Everest he decided to turn back due to looming bad weather. Eight others, only 300 meters from the summit, pressed ahead and perished. Emotion should not play a role in a risk decision, nor should "groupthink", Viesturs cautioned, and to the extent possible explorers should avoid putting themselves in a position where these factors can dominate.

Astronaut Shannon Lucid on Mir Image right: Astronaut Shannon Lucid works out on the treadmill during her six-month stay on the Russian space station Mir in 1996. Photo credit: NASA.

Sylvia Earle, founder and Chair of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc., and veteran of numerous deep-sea dives, expressed her belief that we have become too risk averse as a society. She pointed out that the Mariana Trench - the Everest of the ocean - had not been visited since 1960. Only 5% of the oceans, the home for 97% of life on Earth, has been explored. She emphasized that we should be more concerned with not taking the risk, concluding that "what is really at risk is our future." In this regard, 15th century Ming China, which pulled back from exploration and suffered the consequences of diminished vitality for centuries afterward, was mentioned more than once.

Jean Michel Cousteau pointed out that NASA was created to pioneer the future, and that it should serve not only a generator of new knowledge, but also a generator of national vitality. He reminded the audience of a meeting at NASA Headquarters between his father, Jacques Cousteau, and Wernher von Braun; curiosity animated them, he said, and it should animate us now. James Cameron, relating his experiences in filming "Titanic" and other ventures, concluded that the historical success of nations rests on balancing risks and rewards. Still, "You have to be willing to accept the idea of failure -- failure is part of exploration."

Risks in space exploration were covered by a variety of speakers, including Steve Squyres (principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission), Jim Garvin (NASA Chief Scientist for Mars and the Moon), John Mather (Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope), and John Grunsfeld, who spoke about the decision to cancel the shuttle servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

The meeting was memorable for many reasons, not least because a 6.0 earthquake shook the auditorium on the second day. Most people (including Administrator O'Keefe), kept their seats. But a few -- having calculated that the risk was too great -- headed for the back door! It was a poignant reminder that risk can be subjective and a choice of the most personal kind.

Steven J. Dick
NASA Historian