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Major Rocket Scientist: NASA Should Abandon ‘Safety First’

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

NASA needs a cultural change to focus more on its mission and less on safety if it wants to finally put humans on Mars, a scientist involved in plans to visit the Red Planet told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars and wrote the “The Case For Mars,” thinks that the space agency is being held back by too much focus on safety to the detriment of its other goals.

“The highest priority of the space agency needs to be mission success, the achievement of which requires the right balance between daring and caution,” Zubrin told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “A program which never flies is a failed program, and if fixation on safety as the highest priority causes such an outcome, then such a fixation on safety is a cause of mission failure.”

NASA’s first brush with safety issues occurred when a tragic fire at the outset of the Apollo 1 mission caused the death of three astronauts, all of whom had played critical roles in the Mercury and Gemini programs. The Apollo 1 fire devastated America’s space community, pausing its operations for years due to Congressional investigations and a lengthy redesign effort. NASA was only snapped out of safety mode when it appeared the Soviet Union would beat the U.S. to the moon.

The agency’s safety culture got even stricter after the loss of two Space Shuttles to defects, leading Zubrin and others to dub it the “safety mafia.” NASA has long suspected that the resulting public outcry from a program which
would place “safety second” would probably doom a government mission to funding cuts.

Zubrin noted that even though safety is extremely important, the space agency has become far too risk-averse. Other space analysts point out that focusing too much on NASA’s safety record ironically makes the space program less safe.

By slowing down the development of new rockets to make them marginally safer, NASA was forced to rely on far less safe Russian rockets to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). One of these rockets, which is the same kind that currently carries U.S. astronauts to the ISS, exploded earlier this month in a dramatic launch failure.

“On the other hand, throwing caution to the winds can obviously also lead to mission failure,” Zubrin continued. “It’s always safer not to fly than to fly, so if safety is the highest priority we will never fly, and mission failure is a certainty. The Army has a saying; ‘The mission comes first’ that needs to be the philosophy of the space program.”

Zubrin was one of the original authors of the “Mars Direct” plan to put humans on Mars with current technology. Two previously rejected proposals to send astronauts to Mars were projected to cost $400 billion and $230 billion over 20 to 30 years. Analysts said a modified version of Zubrin’s plan would cost $55 billion dollars over 10 years and could be accomplished within NASA’s existing budget.

Zubrin thinks that a successful NASA Mars mission would need to be much more goal driven, like the successful Apollo program to send U.S. astronauts to the moon.

“Apollo was a success because that was its philosophy,” Zubrin continued. “Apollo had a mission, which was to reach the Moon within a decade, and thereby help win the Cold War by astounding the world with what free people can do. This mission was worth risking life and treasure to achieve, and those participating therefore dared such risks, and triumphed accordingly.”

This runs directly against, outgoing President Obama’s beliefs on space travel, but may appeal to President-elect Donald Trump. Obama twice hampered a program designed to take humans to the moon and Mars by leaking information to the press and threatening a veto. NASA astronauts now rely on the Russians to reach space, and the agency has been forced by the Obama administration to delay the Mars mission until 2030.

“In contrast today, those running the space program do not take its mission seriously, and accordingly are willing to postpone sending humans to Mars ‘until it is safe,’ which is to say forever, while spending billions of dollars per year without intent to achieve anything. This is irresponsible in the extreme.”

Under Obama, NASA increased the amount of money it spent on global warming and earth science research  by 63 percent over the last eight years. The agency currently spends more than $2 billion on its Earth Science Mission Directorate, which covers global warming science. The Directorate is now the largest and fastest growing budget of any NASA science program.  NASA’s other functions, such as astrophysics and space technology, are currently only getting $781.5 million and $826.7 million, respectively.

“It is thus incumbent of the space program to spend its funds as efficiently as possible to get its mission accomplished as soon as possible,” Zubrin concluded. “Doubling the cost of a $10 billion program in order to reduce by 20% the risk to a handful of astronauts, while postponing or even preventing the successful achievement of the program’s objectives is narcissistic and irresponsible. The mission needs to come first.”

Space analysts suspect Trump will modestly increase NASA’s overall budget while slashing many earth science and global warming programs supported by Obama. Additional money for Mars exploration could potentially be diverted from NASA’s troubled Asteroid Redirect Mission, which was also heavily supported by Obama.

Vice President-elect Indiana Gov. Mike Pence tweeted in late October that the U.S. should reinstate the National Space Council to coordinate U.S. space policy with civil and military space agencies. The Council is traditionally headed up by the sitting vice president. Obama promised to re-establish the National Space Council before taking office, but never actually did.

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