[I circulated this note around NASA-JSC right after the Mir-Progress collision le
to many NASA officials proclaiming that 'Mir Was Safe'....]
Heretical thoughts on "Safety".
Jim Oberg. June 26, 1997.
As I see it, the claim that the men on Mir "are safe" is undeserving of belief, and it reflects a growing official preference for wishing and hoping over verifying and proving.
I believe the truth is that NOBODY KNOWS if the men on Mir are "safe", and that this uncertainty should worry us all.
To say with confidence they are "safe", you have to have a proper assessment of the hazards around them and the relative likelihood of failures which invoke those hazards. If the sum of statistical chances of injury or death is below a quantifiable limit, then you are justified in saying the men are "safe".
But the string of recent Mir crises proves, among other things, that nobody in positions of responsibility knew enough about the true state of Mir hardware, of crew capabilities, of ground support skills, of reliability of key components, from which they could make a proper and believable evaluation of the real danger the men are in.
Instead, officials are reduced to expressing a wish, "the men are safe", perhaps hoping that this will magically improve the state of nature -- or at least, will bring reassurance, however illusory, to everyone who is really worried about these men and what their deaths would mean to the crucial US/Russian space partnership.
This is not to assert that the men are NOT safe, of course, although recent experiences provide some evidence to support that view.
This leads to recognizing the difference between risky activity (such as the Apollo flights, or a shuttle launch) and reckless activity (such as keeping people aboard Mir). In one, a quantifiable payoff can be arithmetically compared to known and estimated risks, and the cost/benefit ratio determined. In the other, risks are unmeasured and unknown, and payoffs are nebulous and ill-defined.
An event is NOT justified by the level of danger you endure for it, unless you're a thrill-seeker into "trial by fire". It is justified by the cost/risk/benefit expectation. That's why I think the Mir should be shut down. It's more than risky to keep men there, it's reckless.
Without a proper assessment of what conditions have caused these recent problems, officials will never be able to properly evaluate "safety". So it was very distressing to see the widely-repeated claim that "This collision could have happened on Day 1 of Mir -- it has nothing to do with the station's age". That misleading statement overlooks the cause of the tests which led to the crash, in that the former highly-reliable Progress/Soyuz docking guidance hardware is being replaced with less capable hardware because the Russian space program no longer has the financial resources to purchase the units from the factory, now in Ukraine. Testing out procedures, including backup procedures connected with the expected new system, was the direct cause of the accident, and financial collapse was the direct cause of the need for the tests. The "age of Mir" comment was a diversion and a logical fallacy with its implication that this is the only possible factor in enhancing risk aboard Mir -- there ARE other factors (loss of experienced personnel, loss of communications coverage, loss of financial resources, etc.) and they synergistically combine with Mir's age to make the situation worse than many people obviously like to believe.
This accident could prove to be a godsend. In the idiom of Vietnam, it's a "million dollar wound", serious enough to get you a medevac back to "the world", but not too bad that you're permanently damaged or scarred by it.
Just some thoughts....