Do I feel lucky?
June 30, 2006 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Shuttle crew faces 1-in-100 chance of dying. "Discovery astronaut Mike Fossum described how his family is dealing with the risk: 'I have to look my wife in the eye. ... We've had those discussions. It's not one she is really comfortable with. It's not one anybody really is.' " Launch decision ignores advice of safety officer and engineer. Vaya con Dios, Discovery.
posted by paulsc (52 comments total)
 
NASA isnt holding a gun to anyone's head. If Fossum doesnt like the odds he can step aside. Manned space exploration has risks, like any other form of exploration.
posted by skallas at 10:11 PM on June 30, 2006


It seems to me like Friday was a bit of a slow news day, and this shuttle danger story has flown up the charts in the past 36 hours. In my opinion, it's no more dangerous than the last flight. Hey, this is what we humans do. The people with the guts bet big and roll the dice.
posted by BeerFilter at 10:18 PM on June 30, 2006


114 missions, two blow-ups, 1-in-100 seems a bit optimistic to me.
posted by marvin at 10:19 PM on June 30, 2006


"Why don't you just fix your little problem and light this candle?"
posted by loquacious at 10:23 PM on June 30, 2006


Vaya con Dios

Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the
issues, topics, and facts at hand -- not at other members of the site.
posted by Balisong at 10:38 PM on June 30, 2006


So, you're Mike Fossum's wife, and when he signed up with NASA in 1981, shuttle flight was thought to be so safe, they were going to put a Teacher in Space. Then Challenger blew up, and the survival odds for Shuttle crews were refigured as 1-in-7000 of mission fatality. Then, well, we know what's happened since.

But Mike kept going to work, for 25 years, kept looking up and dreaming the dream, suffered through all the stuff real NASA guys have suffered through in the last years, and, now finally, he's got his ticket, but its down to a 1-in-100 risk, and you, Melanie Fossum, a NASA wife, have a tough choice: Do you sit and wring your hands on launch day, or do you ask him to step aside? How used and boxed in by circumstance do you feel today?

Looks like she'll be wringing her hands, with the rest of us, but damn, I, for one, feel for them both...

Lotsa luck, Mike and Melanie.
posted by paulsc at 11:00 PM on June 30, 2006


IIRC, those were the odds Feynman came up with... ah yes:

"It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask 'What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?'"
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:03 PM on June 30, 2006


Um, your job involves strapping your ass to a really large explosive device. If safety is something you're worried about, go be a CPA, they hardly ever blow up. It's just like recreational parachuting, every once in a while somebody's chute isn't going to open. It's guarenteed. If you want to be safe, stay in the airplane or better yet stay on the ground. But for fucks sake don't complain that it's dangerous.

This guy's problem is that he either should be married or he shouldn't be an astronaut, he need to decide which one he's devoted to.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:13 PM on June 30, 2006


..shouldn't be married..
posted by doctor_negative at 11:14 PM on June 30, 2006


I think putting a number on survival odds is never good, after all, Murphy can be an unpredictable bitch. If I'm gonna be strapped into a metal tube and I want to hear the odds of my survival, I think all I'd want to hear is either "good" or "bad", I'm not enough of a gambler to hear the numbers.

This guy's problem is that he either [shouldn't] be married or he shouldn't be an astronaut, he need to decide which one he's devoted to.

There are plenty of jobs far more dangerous. If this guy wants to lead a normal life away from his job then so let him. It's not like he told his wife just yesterday that he's an astronaut.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 11:21 PM on June 30, 2006


Manned space exploration has risks, like any other form of exploration.

But what is the Space Shuttle actually exploring, anymore?
Aren't they just fixing TV sattelites at this point? Bringing some different shit up in jars to see what happens to it?
We kinda know what's up there now, do we have to send people up there still, knowing there's a good chance they'll explode?
posted by chococat at 11:24 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Focusing on the human drama is NASA's most recent way of drumming up publicity so that people continue to consider them relevant.
posted by nightchrome at 11:44 PM on June 30, 2006


I have a hard time not thinking of the shuttle project as an abject failure. Very expensive, and yet still not safe. Does this prove what engineers often say about a swiss army knife approach to things being a poor choice?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:53 PM on June 30, 2006


Aren't they just fixing TV sattelites at this point? Bringing some different shit up in jars to see what happens to it?

The space shuttle has an important mission: bringing cargo to the space station. The space station, by the way, has an important mission: giving the space shuttle something to bring cargo to.
posted by ootsocsid at 11:57 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


IMO, NASA will be scraped within the next 10 years, tops. Either from another shuttle explosion or funding being cut.
posted by puke & cry at 12:17 AM on July 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


As a pilot, I would appreciate NASA's paying more attention to the first A in NASA, AERONAUTICS part of their mission. Where's my safe, affordable 300mph flying car, dammit?
posted by surlycat at 12:56 AM on July 1, 2006


I'm sure he faced greater odds commuting to work every day for a decade. We all do.
posted by sourwookie at 1:16 AM on July 1, 2006


sourwookie writes "I'm sure he faced greater odds commuting to work every day for a decade. We all do."

No fucking way. Your saying that out of every 100 people who commute to work for 10 years, one dies in the commute? No way. It's probably closer to 1 in 10,000.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:51 AM on July 1, 2006


I can't believe how cowardly and obsessive about safety Americans have become. A 1% chance and this is HEADLINE NEWS.

What a bunch of pussies we are.
posted by Malor at 1:53 AM on July 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


I couldn't help but think they published the odds to encourage internet offshore betting.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 2:37 AM on July 1, 2006


Hope they make it back safe.
posted by bardic at 3:04 AM on July 1, 2006


I can't believe how cowardly and obsessive about safety Americans have become. A 1% chance and this is HEADLINE NEWS.

Hear hear! What were the odds of survival for a 17th century sailor off exploring the world? 1 in 5?

Some people are willing to risk their lives to do amazing things. Good on 'em.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 3:11 AM on July 1, 2006


skallas : "NASA isnt holding a gun to anyone's head. If Fossum doesnt like the odds he can step aside. Manned space exploration has risks, like any other form of exploration."

And nobody is arguing that NASA is holding a gun to anyone's head. If Fossum has worries but wants to do the mission anyway, then he can be worried and do the mission anyway. He doesn't have to pretend to not be worried. And if someone interviews him and asks about how his family feels about the risks, he can answer honestly if he wants. Bravery is necessary to get in a metal box strapped to a rocket and shot into space. Pretending to have no fear whatsoever is not necessary.

doctor_negative : "If you want to be safe, stay in the airplane or better yet stay on the ground. But for fucks sake don't complain that it's dangerous."

What's with the binary choices here? Why can't someone want to be safe, and want to be on the space shuttle? If your desire to be safe is bigger than your desire to be on the shuttle, then your best choice is to stay on the ground. If your desire to be on the shuttle is greater than your desire to be safe, then your best choice is to get on the shuttle. Why the insistence that one should have absolutely no worries or fears, and that one should have no desire to be safe? And why is admitting that you understand the risks and are worried about it "complaining"?
posted by Bugbread at 3:58 AM on July 1, 2006


I only see a problem if what happened on the first shuttle disaster is happening now. Management says that the chances of catastrophic failure are 0.01% and engineers say the chances of disaster are 1% and the shuttle is launched under the assumption of the managements calculation of risk. In the mean time management is basing their numbers off of the initial engineering calculations rather than actual accumulated engineering data. So, for instance, things like O-rings that become brittle in ice water or way beyond specification erosion of nozzle surfaces are ignored.

That doesn't appear to be happening now, it seems that some people responsible for the lauch want to hold it back to increase the odds beyond the 1:100 mark. They haven't said what the actual odds are, which is a part of risk analysis, so the public can only assume they're 1 in 100.

Also, 2 failures out of 114 missions doesn't imply that the odds are better or worse than 1:100. There isn't nearly enough information gathered to say what the probability of failure is based on sampled data. Under norman's approach after the first mission, which was successful the probability of failure was 0%, after the send the probability was 0% etc.

It's like rolling a pair of dice. Sometimes you'll get an outcome like a pair of 1's in rapid succession. Other times there will be runs where more highly probable rolls, such as a 7 will happen less often than expected.
posted by substrate at 4:57 AM on July 1, 2006


1 in 100? Count me in!!
posted by jeffburdges at 5:21 AM on July 1, 2006


"...against the advice of the agency's chief safety officer..."

Somebody want to tell me what the hell they even hired him for? (In any case of management vs. engineers, I'd go with the engineers, if I were a gambling man.)
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:27 AM on July 1, 2006


1 in 100? Count me in!!

Yea, me too. If NASA called me and said, "Hey we have an extra seat on the next flight, you want a ride?", would I turn it down? Hell no! Suit me up and give me a squeeze bottle of Tang, I'm there.
posted by octothorpe at 6:06 AM on July 1, 2006


this is pioneering stuff, still - I don't see 1/100 risk as being particularly bad frankly - I'd have thought any astronaut would be happy with those risks, or what the hell are they doing being an astronaut?
posted by winjer at 6:06 AM on July 1, 2006


Vaya con Dios

Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand -- not at other members of the site.

Uh, you are aware that there was a god concept before Dios chose his e-appellation, right? Unless that was an attempt at humour, in which case, I'll go make some coffee and think about it.

Am I the only recovering nerd who imagines a giant 100-sided die being cast when this thing takes off? Ah, thought so. Carry on
posted by joe lisboa at 6:09 AM on July 1, 2006


The Commander Thinks Aloud by the Long Winters still makes my body hair stand on end when I hear it.

In any case of management vs. engineers, I'd go with the engineers, if I were a gambling man.

As long you exclude software engineers I'm with you on that.
posted by srboisvert at 6:45 AM on July 1, 2006


srboisvert writes "As long you exclude software engineers I'm with you on that."

That's because they're not actually engineers. Engineers, y'know, engineer physical things.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:52 AM on July 1, 2006


Aside from gambling with lives, NASA is also gambling with billions of the American taxpayers dollars. Who's paycheck is this coming out if disaster occurs?
posted by bim at 8:01 AM on July 1, 2006


"Unless that was an attempt at humour, in which case, I'll go make some coffee and think about it."

So, how was the coffee?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:06 AM on July 1, 2006


Love the book title from the first link:

"Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You."
posted by Pendragon at 8:16 AM on July 1, 2006


So, how was the coffee?

Awesome, thanks for asking.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:29 AM on July 1, 2006


Why can't someone want to be safe, and want to be on the space shuttle?

Because the space shuttle is a tin can strapped to a couple thousand tons of nightmarish explosives.

I mean, you *can* want both. You can want anything. But no sensible person can expect both.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:22 AM on July 1, 2006


(In any case of management vs. engineers, I'd go with the engineers, if I were a gambling man.)

Usually that would be sound but NASA's engineers have a known history of negligently reducing expensively trained astronauts and spacecraft to elemental ash. (See the Apollo 1 manned launchpad systems test fire for starters.)
posted by loquacious at 10:25 AM on July 1, 2006


Srboisvert: There are software engineers, but not all software is engineered. Plenty of places give their programmers the title "engineer" but still want them to just slap some stuff together and ship the first thing that mostly works. Some places do carefully engineer their software (and may or may not call their employees "engineers").

Loquacious: Buhh? You're saying that because the engineers have made fatal mistakes and been overoptimistic in the past, that we should instead trust the management, who is even more optimistic and has less direct knowledge of what's going on?
posted by hattifattener at 10:43 AM on July 1, 2006


Choosing the 1-in-100 figure for this article is historically resonant. You've seen Feynman's comment; after Challenger there was better recognition of the risks, and the return-to-flight upgrades were supposed to make it more of a 1-in-1000 risk. At the time of the Columbia loss, NASA was in the middle of a shuttle upgrade program that was designed to improve the odds still further.

Yet here we are.

It's very depressing, because billions of dollars have been spent to get as far away from those 1% odds as possible, basically to naught (of course, as one group sees it).

Even just the one thing you thought they could fix -- the foam problem -- has come back again and again to haunt them. After millions spent.

Keep in mind that Shuttle was designed to do multiple jobs -- launch defense satellites, capture and repair others, do orbital science, build a space station .... and essentially since STS-51L it's been build a space station and not much else. Even the Hubble repair mission, something only the orbiters can do, is hanging by a thread. There's never been a time when Shuttle has more obviously been little more than high-altitude flight -- no exploration. The challenges of space flight are reduced to keeping the crew alive, not much past the Gemini days. Actually doing stuff -- well, that's secondary. If possible. When you have a chance.

Given this severe mission reduction, I no longer feel it is worth the lives of astronauts. I just don't. It kills me, because I used to be one of the strongest boosters of the space program.

That said, Godspeed, Discovery.
posted by dhartung at 12:03 PM on July 1, 2006


Srboisvert: There are software engineers, but not all software is engineered.

I know hattif. I'm a software engineer. I also know that software engineers operate in a field with no professional accountabiltiy. Thus, I am very nervous when I have to count on any software for something important.
posted by srboisvert at 12:05 PM on July 1, 2006


Launch update at T-minus 00:09:00 and holding (scheduled): No go due to weather. Via 3:16 pm update on the Launch Blog for STS-121 and NASA TV. (direct non-embedded WMV link.)
posted by loquacious at 12:36 PM on July 1, 2006


The launch is scrubbed for today.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 PM on July 1, 2006


Aaaand it's officially scrubbed.
posted by loquacious at 12:43 PM on July 1, 2006


"...was it the door?"
posted by ZachsMind at 2:30 PM on July 1, 2006


I'm surprised that some people seem to minimize a 1:100 risk. I participate is a lot of risky activities like mountain climbing, whitewater kayaking and back country snowboarding. My companions and I make daily and moment to moment risk assessments. If any of us thought that we would have a 1:100 chance of being dead by the end of the day, we would turn back. That kind of risk guarantees we would be dead within a year. The risk seems especially pointless for a mission that is the equivalent of delivering groceries in a minivan to the Space Station.
posted by JackFlash at 3:05 PM on July 1, 2006


Ive always loved how ridiculous and pointless the Sapce Shuttle was. Waste 7 people's time and risk on a shuttle when three people in a capsule could get just as much done for FAR cheaper.
posted by subaruwrx at 5:07 PM on July 1, 2006


Shuttle crew faces 1-in-100 chance of dying.

What a load of BS - the shuttle crew all have a 100% chance of dying.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:36 PM on July 1, 2006


Ive always loved how ridiculous and pointless the Sapce Shuttle was. Waste 7 people's time and risk on a shuttle when three people in a capsule could get just as much done for FAR cheaper.

3 is too few to play bridge.
posted by loquacious at 7:06 PM on July 1, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe : "I mean, you *can* want both. You can want anything. But no sensible person can expect both."

Exactly. And the astronaut isn't expecting both. He knows that there's danger. He is willing to take that risk and go up anyway. But some people seem upset at him for even wanting to be safe (or, perhaps, they're cool with him wanting to be safe, but upset that he would admit it).
posted by Bugbread at 10:35 PM on July 1, 2006


We used to send people to the moon.

Now we barely leave the atmosphere. Now we send what is effectively a big ol' airplane up into the stratosphere, take a quick look around, and come right back down.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:04 AM on July 2, 2006


dirtynumbangelboy writes "That's because they're not actually engineers. Engineers, y'know, engineer physical things."

A good portion of those physical things are controlled by software. Something to think about the next time you pull onto the freeway or ride an elevator.
posted by Mitheral at 7:32 AM on July 4, 2006


And they're up, in generally good shape, on July 4.

I watched the launch, and thought, all the time, how different this felt from watching Apollo go up. Then, brave men were risking their lives to go to a place we had watched from afar for eons. This was just haulin' freight up to orbit, in a troublesome space truck. The external tank pictures all the way up to orbit and external tank separation were great.

But I'm really glad they made it. Always good to watch a big time launch, complete with steely eyed missile men.
posted by paulsc at 12:02 PM on July 4, 2006


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