Reason – Based on data from hundreds of programs, policy analyst John D. Graham and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found in 1997 that the median cost for lifesaving expenditures and regulations by the U.S. government in the health care, residential, transportation, and occupational areas ranges from about $1 million to $3 million spent per life saved in today’s dollars. The only marked exception to this pattern occurs in the area of environmental health protection (such as the Superfund program) which costs about $200 million per life saved.
The Superfund inefficiency has been called “statistical murder,” since thousands of additional lives could be saved each year if the money were used more cost-effectively. To avoid such deadly waste, the Department of Transportation has a policy of rejecting any proposed safety expenditure that costs more than $3 million per life saved. That ceiling therefore may be taken as a high-end estimate for the value of an American’s life as defined by the U.S. government.
Recent decisions show that NASA cancelled a mission to save Hubble that cost the taxpayer $5 billion but they did not put a want to take a 2% risk for the Space shuttle Columbia for $67 million. The remaining value was for the Shuttle crew at nearly $1 billion per person.
So as they shuttle astronauts drove up to NASA, the Department of highways value their life at $5 million. As the Shuttle astronauts went to the store and bought products the Consumer safety department valued their life at $5 million. As they went about their daily routine various other government agencies valued their life at $1 million, but once they stepped into a rocket decisions were made that valued their life at nearly $1 billion.
NASA’s manned spaceflight effort has been spending more and more to accomplish less and less. If we are to achieve anything going forward, we have to find some way to strike a balance between human life and mission accomplishment.
NASA takes some $4 billion in taxpayer money per year to fly humans into space, it really has to fly them there and put them to good use. That amount of money, if spent on ground-based life-saving efforts such as childhood vaccinations, swimming lessons, fire escape inspections, highway repairs, body armor for the troops, save (at the government average of $2 million per life) roughly 2,000 lives. This is the sacrifice that the nation makes so NASA can run a human spaceflight program. In the face of such sacrifice, real results are required.
Imagine you are the manager of a Mars robotic-rover program. You have a fixed budget and two options for how to spend it. The first option is to spend half the money on development and testing, the rest on manufacturing and flight operations. If you take this choice, you get two rovers, each with a 90 percent chance of success. The other option is to spend three-quarters of the budget on development and testing, leaving a quarter for the actual mission. If you do it this way, you get just one rover, but it has a success probability of 95 percent. Which option should you choose?
The right answer is to go for two rovers, because if you do it that way, you will have a 99 percent probability of succeeding with at least one of the vehicles and an 81 percent probability of getting two successful rovers—an outcome that is not even possible with the other approach. This being a robotic mission, with no lives at stake, that’s all clear enough. But if we were talking about a human mission, what would the right choice be? The correct answer would be the same, because with tens of billions of dollars that could be used instead to meet all kinds of other pressing human needs, the first obligation must be to get the job done.
Of course, if the choice were between two missions that each had just a 10 percent success probability and one with a 90 percent chance, the correct answer would be different. The point is that there is a methodology, well established in other fields, that can help assess the rationality of risk reduction expenditures in the human spaceflight program. If NASA disagrees with the suggested assignment of $50 million for the life of an astronaut, it should come up with its own figure, substantiate it, and then subject its proposed plan of action to a quantitative cost-benefit analysis based on that assessment. But it needs to be a finite number, for to set an infinite value on the life of an astronaut is to set both the goals of the space exploration effort and the needs of the rest of humanity at naught.
This may seem like a harsh approach. But the many billions being spent on the human spaceflight program are not being spent for the safety of the astronauts; they could stay safe if they stayed home. The money is being spent to open the space frontier. Human spaceflight vehicles are not amusement park rides. They are daring ships of exploration that need to sail in harm’s way if they are to accomplish a mission critical to the human future. That mission needs to come first.
In 2008, According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the value is $5 million. The U.S. Department of Transportation just increased its estimate of value from $3 million to $5.8 million. The EPA just went the other way, marking down its estimate of value from $8 million to $7.22 million. Government entities need to put a value on human life so they can do a cost benefit analysis of any action they take. Requiring road safety features such as guardrails, proper slopes on curves and installation of those little yellow bumps between lanes to alert you if your car starts drifting over all increase the cost of a highway project, but they save lives. And apparently the cost isn’t so high the project can’t be built. Requiring all drivers stay under 10 miles per hour would also save countless lives, but it would come close to shutting down the economy. Not worth it.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.