Sixteen years ago, aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin wrote The Case for Mars, outlining his plan for a manned mission to Mars. Since then, we haven't put a human on the Red Planet or returned to the moon, and Zubrin argues that one reason is that we are too obsessed with the safety of astronauts.
Zubrin's article "How Much Is an Astronaut's Life Worth?" appeared in the February issue of the magazine Reason. The gist of his argument is laid out in the video above: that NASA fails to perform an appropriate cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to send astronauts on missions, instead valuing the life of the astronaut above all. Zubrin notes that other government agencies do these analyses all the time; for example, the Department of Transportation will reject a safety improvement proposal if the proposed expenditure will cost more than $3 million per life saved. Even if we valued an astronaut's training and skills at $50 million per astronaut, Zubrin argues that doesn't justify, for example, the cancellation of the mission to save, repair, and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 due to risk of astronaut death.
Zubrin is arguing in part for allowing astronauts to decide for themselves whether to accept the risk of manned missions to Mars and the moon, but also for risking human life to maintain and improve pieces of our space research infrastructure. I suspect, though, that NASA is considering not only the individual worth of an astronaut, but also how the death of an astronaut affects the public's view of the space program. It will be interesting to see if, with the advent of commercial space ventures, astronaut death will become a more routine aspect of space exploration, and whether the public at large will accept those deaths as a cost of human expansion into space.