Space Shuttle Russian Roulette

July 27th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It is a relief to see the space shuttle successfully in orbit. But all is not well. The New York Times reported yesterday that “With a new realism born of disaster, NASA says that the risk of catastrophic failure during the space shuttle Discovery’s mission is about 1 in 100.” This is an astoundingly high risk for an event that is expected to be repeated perhaps several dozen more times in the next 5 years or so.

This level of risk it means that over 25 flights there is a greater than 22% risk of a catastrophic loss of an orbiter. The odds of surviving Russian Roulette (1 bullet in a 6 chambered pistol) are much higher, 16.7% chance of shooting yourself. If the odds of a catastrophic failure are at the observed shuttle success rate of 1 in 57, then the probability of a failure over 25 flights rises to about 37%. NASA is playing a very dangerous game.

Given that the Shuttle is destined to be retired no matter what, costs billions and billions of dollar per year and carries a catastrophic failure probability of Russian Roulette, perhaps it is time to think about retiring it sooner rather than later and investing our space policy resources more rapidly into whatever is to come next.

2 Responses to “Space Shuttle Russian Roulette”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    This chamber was empty:,0,2262872.story?coll=la-tot-promo

  2. 2
  3. kevin Says:

    And hopefully when NASA does move toward the “next” it’ll answer first what might be the most basic question nobody is asking: can frequent space flight be done at low risk at all? Is it reasonable to expect that a new multi-pax orbiter will decrease the risk by many orders of magnitude? From 1-100 to 1-10,000? Would we even accept 1-10,000?