THE BLOG
11/20/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Do We Have What It Takes to Explore Space?

Steven Hobbs/Stocktrek Images via Getty Images

The recent accidents at Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences have stimulated an important discussion not only for space exploration, but also for our national economic future: What level of risk are we willing to accept in order to advance technology and exploration?

We are all saddened by the recent death and injury of the Virgin Galactic test pilots. Comprehensive investigations of both accidents are required; but these episodes have fueled cases of wild speculation, misinformation, and at times borderline hysteria from various members of the media. Many of these stories question whether 'commercial' companies should be engaged in space exploration -- and some have questioned whether we should risk lives for space exploration at all.

Ironically, during the same time-frame as these two accidents, circus performer Nik Wallenda tightrope walked blindfolded between two Chicago skyscrapers, and actor Tom Cruise dangled outside an inflight airplane to promote his upcoming movie. These stunts did not receive nearly the scrutiny and condemnation from the pundits that the spacecraft accidents received. Granted, neither of these stunts resulted in a loss of life, but both were cases of individuals taking a substantial risk to their lives for nothing more than publicity and entertainment. By comparison, companies like Virgin Galactic, Orbital, and many others are trying to advance technology, exploration, and create new industries. As with early aviation, it is essential that the burgeoning commercial space industry be allowed to take reasonable risks.

This isn't to say that these companies shouldn't be scrutinized. If the investigations find serious problems with the technology and procedures, the companies should certainly be held accountable, and they should make any changes reasonably necessary to improve the safety and reliability of their products. But if we allow a knee-jerk reaction and don't allow companies and individuals to take reasonable risks to achieve breakthroughs, we will almost certainly be condemning ourselves to economic decline.

Consistent funding and acceptance of reasonable risk are perhaps the two most essential elements that are required to advance a robust human space flight program. In the case of human spaceflight, mission planners should (and do) try to make missions as safe as possible, but they will NEVER be able to make them 100 percent safe, just as aircraft, automobiles, and other transportation systems have not been made 100 percent safe. Almost 33,000 people perished in motor vehicle accidents in 2013; an astonishing figure, but nobody suggests abandoning automobiles. People also die in military training accidents - and it is well-known that commercial aviation, while safer than most modes of transportation, is also not 100 percent safe.

Why do we perceive these risks differently when it comes to space exploration? When military or automobile accidents occur, the national psyche isn't riding along. Even for people who don't consider themselves fans of NASA, space exploration can be an emotional roller coaster, and monetary and personal risk are often used to deflect a potentially larger fear - emotional risk. When there is an accident with our space program (like the Space Shuttle Columbia or Challenger), it has a psychological impact like few other events. It impacts our national pride and our outlook on the future. Without emotional risk, however, we will never have the emotional highs (or technological and scientific benefits) of great success - like when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the Moon or when the Curiosity rover landed on the Martian surface - or recently when the European Space Agency landed Philea on the surface of a comet.

Individuals, companies, and governments must weigh whether the goals they hope to achieve justify the financial and human risks. Some goals may not be worth the risk and others may require that astronauts take on greater personal risks than have ever been taken before in space exploration. But we are on the verge of a potentially game changing era of exploration, technological advancement, and emerging industries. If we willing to take smart risks, we will see an extraordinary future.