Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NASA And Its Hang Ups

Imagine if Toyota tried to sell a line of cars that had a failure rate of 1 in 60. One of every 60 blew up when you turned the key or hit the brake pedal. How long would Toyota stay in business?

Imagine an airline that cancelled 10 flights for every five it got into the air?

Imagine a job where 1 out of every 50 employees was killed at work.

In other words, imagineā€¦the space shuttle.

I was astonished when shuttle cheerleader Keith Cowing hung up on me in the middle of an on-air interview today. He now claims
in his blog that he was "ambushed" by my questions about the disastrous space shuttle program, an odd claim given that NASA was literally debating what to do about yet another mid-flight problem with the space shuttle as we spoke.

Is it really a surprise to even the most devoted NASA brown-noser that the shuttle has problems? That this $500 million per flight death machine is considered by many to be NASA's greatest fiasco (which is saying a lot about an organization that accidentally slammed a vehicle into the surface of Mars because they forgot to convert miles to kilometers).

Cowing's performance was an embarrassment to himself and his cause, mostly because he could offer no facts. When asked to simply offer counter-arguments, all he could do was stammer "You've already made up your mind."

He objected when I argued that the shuttle was the most deadly transportation system as yet devised. So I asked him to help me with that math (7 passengers per flight, 118 flights, 14 deaths... ) That's when he hung up on me.

Here's the Natural Truth about the shuttle program:

It was supposed to cost $5-10 million per flight, and average a flight a month. It's $500 million per, and they can't get the thing in the air. Since 2003, there have been twice as many cancelled flights as actual lift-offs. When it does fly, pieces keep falling off.

No airplane, helicopter, automobile or bungee cord would be allowed on the market with a kill-ratio that matched the space shuttle. Out of every 60 trips, one blows up. Out of every 100 shuttle passengers, about 2 die. For comparison, there were 1.8 billion airline passengers in 2004, and just 428 died. That's .000000428 per 100 airplane passengers.

Cowing tried to argue that this death rate is actually pretty good given how complex the space shuttle is. That doesn't answer the question of why we're putting people in such an unnecessarily complex machine to begin with. It's the idea of the shuttle that's so dumb, and
people much smarter than myself have been calling for this flying NASA jobs program to be grounded.

We don't need it. Space flight can be more simply, less expensive and with far fewer dead people. The Apollo program never lost a single astronaut in flight (three did die tragically on the ground). Even NASCAR has a lower fatality rate, and the drivers are intentionally engaged in risky behavior at 180 mph.

Anyone defending NASA even as pieces of the shuttle continue to flake off during flight should expect a question or two about the wisdom of continuing the deadly disaster that is the shuttle program.

If Mr. Cowing finds my questions difficult to answer, he should hope not to face any from the families of the 14 dead astronauts.