A Risk-Averse Nation?

Back in February, I heard David Sanger, Washington correspondent for the New York Times, speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Sanger's book The Inheritance, a fascinating read about the myriad of daunting challenges facing the new Obama administration, had just come out, and he was discussing some of the thornier issues on that list.

While most of his talk concerned foreign policy issues, Sanger made the comment that one danger facing the U.S. was that "we could become a risk-averse nation. The entire mood of the country has swung from taking wild risks to taking no risk," he observed. "And that could be bad for the country." Sanger was talking about the economy--he asked, at one point, what would have happened if Google had had to go before a government committee to get funding for the concept--but his point is relevant beyond the tall towers of Wall Street or the rolling hills of Silicon Valley.

On Monday afternoon, the Atlantis astronauts made their final spacewalk to repair and update the Hubble Telescope. In an earlier post, I talked about the Hubble's importance ... and the questionable importance of human spaceflight going forward, beyond the Hubble missions. But I didn't get into another whole aspect of the mission--which is the fact that it almost didn't happen, because in 2004, the then-NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe considered the risks too high.

The Hubble is in an orbit littered with a lot of space debris (we could have another whole discussion on on how that came about), and too low for a damaged Shuttle to reach the International Space Station. Of course, these factors were also true of earlier Hubble missions, but they didn't figure as prominently into the equation until the shuttle Columbia was destroyed in re-entry because of debris damage sustained earlier in the mission.

To be fair, NASA's in a bit of a tough place, when it comes to the risks it takes with astronauts, because the failures are so public. The Agency is excoriated publicly, 24 hours a day, for weeks, months, and years. 50,000 people die on our highways every 12 months, and we don't shut down our highway system. But lose seven astronauts, and you can endanger the entire space program.

And yet, without risk, there is no accomplishment ... a fact understood by every single astronaut and test pilot I've ever interviewed. Every single one of them has chafed at being held back because of Agency or external concern about the risks involved. "I fully expected to die in one of the planes I was flying," the famous X-15 test pilot Scott Crossfield once told me. "They were putting this five million dollar escape system into the plane, and I told them I'd fly it sitting on a tomato can if they'd give me the money instead."

Not every NASA explorer is as colorful as the legendary Crossfield, of course. But Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, who performed the last spacewalk on the Hubble on Monday, has said more than once that he considered the telescope "worth risking my life for." The pilots, astronauts and shuttle commanders I've interviewed all say they know the risks. The astronauts know, as one put it to me, that a Shuttle flight is a one-way ticket, with a chance of a return trip. And they're okay with that. It's the rest of us that don't seem to be.

There needs to be balance, of course. Reckless risk is bad for everyone (see: credit default swaps). NASA managers speak of a balancing act called "risk versus reach." Too little reach, and you discover nothing significantly new. Too much risk, and you lose the craft and people you need to do the exploring, and you discover nothing at all.

But consider this: not only would Google have trouble convincing a public, risk-averse financial safety board that they were a risk worth taking, but the Wright Brothers would never have left the ground. Aviation itself could never have evolved, if nobody was allowed to be at risk in the course of its development. In his classic memoir Fate is the Hunter, Ernest Gann--one of the early airline pilots, and a brilliant writer--has a section dedicated to colleagues killed in the line of duty, whose "wings are forever folded." The list, single spaced and double-columned, goes on for several pages. And that's just working airline pilots, who discovered the hard way the weaknesses in airliners, weather, and navigation systems. There were hundreds, even thousands, of others who gave their lives in the process of the technology's maturation.

Exploration, innovation, and entrepreneurship are all risky endeavors. If the risks taken are going to bring down an entire financial system for the rest of us, that's one thing. But if an informed explorer is willing to put their own life, fortune ... or even, to quote a memorable document, their sacred honor ... on the line for a cause, technology, or chance they think is worth it ... perhaps we should rethink our knee-jerk reflex to keep them safer than they wish to keep themselves.