Risk Tolerance

I am a big fan of the author Bill Bryson. I have enjoyed all his books and recently have been rereading “One Summer: America, 1927”. His sparkling account joyously brings that time to life. Looking back at 1927 from April to October, Bryson chronicles an amazing time: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehring, Coolidge and Harding, the first ‘talking’ pictures bringing revolution to Hollywood, and of course, Lucky Lindy. Yes, I recommend you buy Bryson’s book and read it.

Especially study the part about the Orteg prize and the competition to be the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. As I read about aviation in 1927, I am powerfully aware of the many folks — people who would influence space policy today — who continue to draw comparisons between aviation in the ‘golden age’ and space exploration.

Remembering the actual events of those years should give those advocates pause to consider the risks that were considered acceptable in 1927. An unbelievable number of those early aviators were ill-prepared, took risks that were outside the limits of good judgment, or let ego and the pursuit of fame blind them to the realities of what they were about to do. Stupidity seemed to be more typical than not.

Let me excerpt some passages from Bryson’s book which gives an accounting of aviation in those electric months of 1927 (with sincere apologies to the author as I do violent excision of his words):

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“America had three teams in the running . . . Columbia, America, American Legion . . . The leader of the America team was thirty-seven-year-old naval commander Richard Evelyn Byrd . . . On April 6, 1927, just before six in the evening, [Anthony] Fokker . . . copilot Floyd Bennett, navigator George Noville, and Byrd himself eagerly crowded into the cockpit . . . As America came in to land . . . it came down nose-first. The problem was that the weight was up front and there was no way for any of the four men to move to the back to redistribute the load . . . a piece of the propeller ripped through the cockpit and pierced Bennett’s chest . . . Byrd . . . failed to notice that his left arm had snapped like a twig . . . For the time being, the Byrd team was out of the running.

Clarence Chamberlin . . . a short flight above Long Island . . . the landing gear fell apart during the takeoff . . . the wing hit the ground and the damage to the plane was sufficient to set back the Columbia’s plans considerably.
Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster . . . were smart, able aviators, and their plane, a Keystone Pathfinder . . . was 1,150 lbs heavier than it was supposed to . . . On April 26 . . . they would take off with a full load of seventeen thousand pounds . . . the plane struggled to get airborne . . . not enough to clear a line of trees . . . stalled and fell to earth with a sickening crash. Davis and Wooster died instantly . . .

. . . Paris, where at dawn on May 8 . . . Captain Charles Nungesser and Captain Francois Coli . . . war heroes . . men at ease with danger . . . called their plane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) and painted it white so that it would be easier to find if it came down at sea. . . they could carry no more than about forty hours’ worth of fuel, which left them almost no margin for error. . . after loading supplies, their plane weighed almost eleven thousand pounds. It had never taken off with that much weight before . . . the plane slowly gathered speed . . . lifted briefly, but then came down again and bouncily proceeded another three hundred yards before finally, agonizingly, and barely getting airborne. The chief engineer, who had run along beside the plane much of the way, fell to his knees and wept. . . . One hour and twenty-seven minutes later . . . Nungesser and Coli reached the chalky sea cliffs of Normandy at Etretat. A squadron of four escort planes tipped their wings in salute and peeled away and L’Oiseau Blanc flew off alone in the direction of the British Isles and the cold Atlantic beyond. . . . Nugesser and Coli . . . missing and feared lost. . . The one thing that wasn’t found was any trace of the White Bird or its occupants.

At the same time . . . another ambitious French flight . . . got under way when three aviators, Pierre de Saint-Roman, Herve Mouneyres, and Louis Petit, took off from Senegal . . . and headed for Brazil . . . no wreckage was ever found . . . In nine months, eleven people had died in the quest to fly the Atlantic . . . nothing was going right for anyone . . .

. . . Lindbergh . . .

With the Atlantic conquered, attention turned to the Pacific – specifically the 2,400 miles . . . between California and Hawaii. . . the Dole Pacific race with $35,000 in prize money . . . from the municipal airport in Oakland, California . . . to Oahu. . . . Three competitors died in crashes before they even reached Oakland. Another plane crashed in the sea as it approached the Oakland airfield . . . another plane was not allowed to depart after it became evident that the pilot had no idea how much fuel he needed to reach Hawaii and didn’t have a fuel tank nearly big enough . . . By the day of the race, the number of planes taking part had been reduced to eight, and four of those scratched before takeoff or turned back soon after. Of the four planes that set off, two made it to Hawaii and two more were lost en route. . . . When word got back that six people were missing, a pilot named William Erwin took off from Oakland to look for them, but he disappeared, too. . . ten people died in the Dole race . . .

. . . people were suddenly announcing daring and risky flights all over the place. Paul Redfern . . . proposing to fly 4,600 miles – farther and anyone had evern flown before – over ocean and jungle, into a realm far beyond the range of reliable maps and weather reports . . . it would take him at least sixty hours to reach Rio. But before he even cleared the Caribbean he was lost . . . it was the last anyone ever saw of him . . . in 1938, at the request of Redfern’s wife . . . Redfern was declared officially dead by a court in Detroit.

In Britain an unlikely sixty-two-year old woman, Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg . . . a dashing young captain named Leslie Hamilton expressed a desire to cross the Atlantic from east to west, she funded the flight on the understanding that she would accompany the fliers. With Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Minchin as copilot, they took off from an airfield near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The princess wore a stylish hat and an ocelot coat . . . They were sighted over Ireland and again from a ship about halfway across the Atlantic, but they never reached American and no trace of them was ever found.

At about the same time, a plane called Old Glory . . . took off from Old Orchard Beach in Maine . . . bound for Rome . . . piloted by Lloyd Bertaud . . . copilot was James DeWitt Hill, and along for the ride as passenger was Philip A. Payne, editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror. Just three and a half hours after takeoff they issued an urgent, unexplained SOS. They were never seen again. A few hours later, two Canadian airmen, Captain Terrence Tully and Lieutenant James Medcalf took off from Newfoundland, bound for London in a plan called the Sir John Carling. They were never heard from again either. “

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So the question remains: how good an analogy is early aviation to the current state of space exploration?
And how much risk are we willing to take to go to space these days? A prudent amount? What does that mean? Is your standard the same as mine? And what will the lawyers say when the heirs file their lawsuits? And who will be the next Lindbergh?

2014 is not 1927: no Babe Ruth in sight. Hopefully nobody will repeat those days . . . . Sadly, nobody will repeat those days . . . .

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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17 Responses to Risk Tolerance

  1. Beth says:

    Your final line seems to say it all. What we gain, and what we lose, as the future becomes the past.

  2. Andrew_W says:

    Looking at that, what we’re doing in space flight today doesn’t even start to be analogous to the pioneering period in aviation, perhaps most strikingly because the early aviation approach just wouldn’t be allowed, todays counterparts to those aviators only get to die in spirit.

  3. Vince says:

    Wayne, you have again, made us think.

    I think you provided a hint of an explanation when you pointed out the lack of a risk calculus in that bygone age. Interestingly, that era seems to coincide with the close of the age of terrestrial exploration itself.

    I believe much of what is left to be known about space operations still falls squarely into the exploration bin, with its inherent limits on safety and safe practice. Indeed, Diane Vaughan’s work helps us to re-member and re-think risk distinctions between space exploration and normalized operations in the early years of the Space Shuttle program. History seemed to teach, on occasion again, as to the perils of failing to heed such distinctions.

    In my view, the uniquely high costs and visibility of failure in space operations is something, but perhaps not the only thing(s) that bounds 1927 from 2014, and beyond. At bottom, the complicated explanations for that difference may lie in broader causation: a litigious culture, a societal obsession with fixing blame, the fear of jeopardizing funding streams, the unwillingness of political leaders to embrace failure, stockholder expectations wholly inconsistent with space exploration, etc., including other factors I lacked the imagination to think of, are likely responsible for the existence of contemporary risk mitigation. In fairness, risk mitigation has accomplished great things in aviation, medicine, civil preparedness, and myriad other disciplines. But…

    My concern if it could be called one, is that the bar of perceived prudence and due diligence is at a height controlled more by lawyers, and determined less by explorers and the engineers of achievement. If true, those linkages could imply that engineering innovations in space exploration will likely become incremental and spread across many years. I do not believe contemporary risk calculus will not thwart innovation in space exploration; rather, I think the era of large forward leaps in space exploration has receded from view.

    None of what I have written is meant to diminish the value and impact of experimental work done by space and related technology professionals. I assert that risk decision-making is performed farther away from engineer workstations than ever. It was providential that law school faculty knew so little about space exploration in the dawn of America’s era of space. But it seems unfair to blame lawyers…entirely. I guess lawyers went where they felt they were needed; welcome or not.

  4. P. Savio says:

    If 2014 was 1927 astronauts would already be flying the Spacex Cargo capsule up to the ISS without a launch escape system (didn’t we do that on the shuttle…) and down, in a shuttle era ACES pressure suit with a few spare oxygen bottles and with limited manual override control.

  5. I believe most Americans will not today hold-back wealthy individuals and privately-held companies from doing risky things with their own money, just as they didn’t for the privately funded crews, craft, and prizes of nearly a century ago. Today, were there an accident, I think most people, not to put too fine a point on the matter, would conclude that, absent “engineering vs. management hat” negligence or the loss of innocent lives, if rich adults want to pay to blow themselves up, who are we to stop them.

    I believe XCOR and Virgin Galactic are today an intersection between the sense of adventure to go into space and the willingness to pay for it. Like Jack Northrop and Howard Hughes, people who raised their money by inspiring investors or had the confidence of their convictions to use their own bank accounts in pursuit of their dreams, those two companies have shown that private funding is more than adequate to propel progress in aerospace.

    And if either company is successful, I believe the American people will celebrate, not clamor to stop, space travel by those privately funded companies.

    A distinction needs however to be made between XCOR or Virgin Galactic and commercial crew, which isn’t even majority privately funded. A commercial crew accident means, at best, a loss of funding. That doesn’t mean the American people won’t accept risk, only that they won’t subsidize companies’ or individuals’ dreams.

    And given the levels of VC funding, available at Price Waterhouse’s MoneyTree (https://www.pwcmoneytree.com), or the amount Facebook paid for WhatsApp, why should they?

  6. Jared says:

    Aeronautical advancement in the 1920 was certainly littered with tragedy. Fast forward to the 1950’s with the development of supersonic jet aircraft and the landscape was again littered with brave people martyred in the effort. Move again a decade and the same was happening in the initial efforts at the conquest of space. Considering the limited numbers of people and operations, the risk was breathtaking; three in Apollo before a flight was even attempted, an entire pad crew in the USSR incinerated. Shuttle contributed more than Its share as well.
    Public odd were 50/50 whether Apollo 11 would bring Neil, Buzz and Michael home alive. They went anyway.
    So what is the solution? Do we just slow down or stop? Taken to absurdity, we would still be sitting in a cold cave biting heads off of lizards.
    Would slowing progress down help? Even at the current pace, an engineer is lucky to be involved in a single design exercise that is fielded, any slower and we would be starting over for each iteration. Rocketdyne is still building variants of the RL10, a 1950’s design. This would be unthinkable in aviation, turbofan engines are on an 18 to 24 month development cycle.
    Risk appears to be an inseparable aspect of progress, especially early progress.
    Can risk be eliminated? Likely not. Can it be reduced? Probably, but in the case of independent private development, how? Without spraying cold water on the whole activity, or outlawing avenues that are currently considered too risky, eliminating possibly transformational techniques for performing these missions.
    The folks who risk their lives may be dismissive or ignorant of the real risks. They are still doing so at their own free will.

  7. Dan Adamo says:

    Good question, Wayne. I’m not an expert on aviation history, but I think the risk tolerance analogy between aviation circa 1927 and [human] space exploration circa 2014 is a poor one. If we ignore safety and liability risks, often difficult to quantify short of body counts and insurance claims after an accident, there’s no comparison between the cost of an airplane like Spirit of St. Louis and a crewed spacecraft like Space Shuttle or Dragon.

    It was possible for an individual or a small group of private investors to finance a bid to win an early 20th century aviation prize. Companies and entire nations must invest hundreds of millions to billions of dollars before flying a crewed spacecraft. Even the “commercial” entities competing to fly a spacecraft to ISS are partially funded by NASA, so there’s really no present-day private space exploration analog to aviation circa 1927. The level of accountability to which NASA and its commercial partners are held when using funds from the Federal budget is in a different league from early aviation.

    Turning to safety and liability in space exploration, I believe some important precedents are about to be set in assessing range safety concerns associated with SpaceX launches from near Brownsville, Texas. Although SpaceX doesn’t presently intend to launch humans from Brownsville, they describe the post-launch ground track leaving the Gulf of Mexico between Cuba and South Florida as “threading the needle”. If a second stage malfunction results in failure to achieve orbit after a Brownsville launch, losses from impacting debris on the ground could be devastating for all concerned. See my white paper at http://spaceenterpriseinstitute.org/2014/09/range-safety-implications-for-brownsville-texas-launches-to-earth-orbit/ for more details.

  8. jimhillhouse says:

    I believe most Americans will not today hold-back wealthy individuals and privately-held companies from doing risky things with their own money, just as they didn’t for the privately funded crews, craft, and prizes of nearly a century ago. Today, were there an accident, I think most people, not to put too fine a point on the matter, would conclude that, absent “engineering vs. management hat” negligence or the loss of innocent lives, if rich adults want to pay to blow themselves up, who are we to stop them.

    I believe XCOR and Virgin Galactic are today an intersection between the sense of adventure to go into space and the willingness to pay for it. Like Jack Northrop and Howard Hughes, people who raised their money by inspiring investors or had the confidence of their convictions to use their own bank accounts in pursuit of their dreams, those two companies have shown that private funding is more than adequate to propel progress in aerospace.

    And if either company is successful, I believe the American people will celebrate, not clamor to stop, space travel by those privately funded companies.

    A distinction needs however to be made between XCOR or Virgin Galactic and commercial crew, which isn’t even majority privately funded. A commercial crew accident means, at best, a loss of funding. That doesn’t mean the American people won’t accept risk, only that they won’t subsidize companies’ or individuals’ dreams.

    And given the levels of VC funding, available at Price Waterhouse’s MoneyTree, or the amount Facebook paid for WhatsApp, why should they?

  9. Jerr says:

    Thank you for the post and glad to see you back at the blog!

  10. Charley S says:

    X-prize.

    The Prize was based on those prizes for the early 20th century. It was even modified to lower the risk of death. The original requirement was for three people to be on each flight. That was changed to 1 person and ballast replacing the others. If memory serves, over 20 teams competed and only Spaceship One ever fielded a vehicle.

    Each flight was a near disaster. They flew one test flight and then the back to back to win the prize. It simply was not safe enough to continue flying.

    If that winning flight in front of the world’s camera’s and live on CNN was a smoking crater, it may have stopped everything or spurred on a better Spaceship as a memorial.

  11. Mike Schriber says:

    Excellent as always. It’s good to see you writing your blog again.

    It seems to me that we’re now so risk averse as a society that it’s become harmful to progress. Failure isn’t tolerated anymore. Everything needs to be perfect and safe. That’s not an environment that’s conducive to advancement. We learn from failure. It’s critical to the process. To reap the biggest rewards, you have to take risks. Not be reckless, but calculated risks, well measured against the possible rewards. Things will fail. People will die. Technology will advance. Progress.

    Ad astra per aspera.

    • Dan Adamo says:

      Mike, I’m interested in how you and others feel about the losses of Challenger, Columbia, and their crews in the context of your remarks. Were the 51-L and STS-107 launches leading to these mishaps ill-considered and reckless? Did knowledge gained from investigating these mishaps justify the loss of life? Have these losses contributed significantly to the failure intolerance you mention?

      • Mike Schriber says:

        I believe that STS-51-L and STS-107 were examples of risk out of proportion to the possible reward. I say this because by normalizing deviance, the additional risk was unnecessary and therefore reckless. In addition, the actual failure rate was much higher than predicted which left the astronauts unable to properly assess the level of risk they were prepared to accept.

        One of the saddest aspects of the two shuttle failures is that the lessons learned form Challenger where not able to prevent the loss of Columbia. Both missions failed due to systemic failures of management and leadership. Lessons have to be learned and progress needs to be made for the risk to be justified.

        All that being said, if someone had asked me anytime during the shuttle program if I wanted to fly I would have jumped at the chance. Sometimes logic isn’t the only factor.

      • Dan Adamo says:

        Well, your odds of surviving a single Shuttle mission would have been worse than exploring the Louisiana Purchase under Captains Lewis and Clark for several years and returning to St. Louis alive in 1806. I agree normalization of deviance and the culture tolerating it composed the primary missing “term” from Shuttle mission risk estimates largely based on hardware component reliability, systems redundancy, and established flight envelopes (Wayne knows this business far better than I). Commercial airlines, with the FAA and NTSB, manage the normalization of deviance far better than NASA has. I wonder if being accountable to stockholders, Federal regulators, and the flying public is more likely to avoid reckless behavior than being accountable to the President, Congress, and space enthusiasts.

      • waynehale says:

        Its rather simplistic to say that NASA did not learn from Challenger and that caused Columbia. You can find my thoughts on this complex process in earlyier posts, mostly in 2013, looking back at the accidents.

    • waynehale says:

      I see a lot more risk acceptance in the “new space” community. We will see how that plays out.

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