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» Hatrack River Forum » Active Forums » Books, Films, Food and Culture » The most difficult question I've heard this year

   
Author Topic: The most difficult question I've heard this year
AchillesHeel
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What monetary value would you put on the life of an astronaut?

Source and full article.

quote:
NASA almost didn't send a shuttle to fix the Hubble Space Telescope because there was a documented one chance in 50 of vehicle failure. That's a 2% chance of killing seven people, which works out to a 14% chance of killing one person. Hubble is a $4 billion asset, from which Zubrin infers that NASA values the life of one astronaut at about $28 billion.
I really don't have a good answer for this, technology like the Hubble is a big part of what is and will continue advancing our species as a whole so it might sound callous but a few lives are worth the price. But, and it is a pretty huge but, I am human and human life is the absolute number one priority no matter what.

It isn't often that a question in which all the variables are present still makes me scratch my head and not know what to do, anyone have a more cogent view of the problem?

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Itsame
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Unless you think that Hubble will directly contribute to the survival of human life, you seem to be contradicting yourself.

I'll assume you are internally consistent and do think that Hubble directly contributes to human survival (and you are a utilitarian of some sort and think that the amount of lives saved (or happiness, or whatever) is greater than the lives risked in some sort of expected utility calculation. Would you mind explaining how Hubble does this?

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Stone_Wolf_
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Simple...ask for volunteers, and if not enough astronauts are willing to risk their necks, don't do it. Let people choose for themselves.
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kmbboots
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How is this a different calculation than for any job with a risk? Or any activity for that matter?
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MattP
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
How is this a different calculation than for any job with a risk? Or any activity for that matter?

This. There are many very important jobs, not all of them very expensive, with a substantially elevated risk of death or serious injury. Hubble and the space shuttle are exotic, but people volunteering to engage in risky activities for money, fame, or more lofty compensation is not unique to the space program.
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AchillesHeel
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
How is this a different calculation than for any job with a risk? Or any activity for that matter?

It strikes me as different because of the 28 billion dollar estimate, there is not a single person working at a soap factory worth 28 billion. The average amount of compensation to families of 9/11 victims was 2 million, so the idea that an astronaut is worth 28 billion is somewhat staggering.
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AchillesHeel
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quote:
Originally posted by JonHecht:
Unless you think that Hubble will directly contribute to the survival of human life, you seem to be contradicting yourself.

I'll assume you are internally consistent and do think that Hubble directly contributes to human survival (and you are a utilitarian of some sort and think that the amount of lives saved (or happiness, or whatever) is greater than the lives risked in some sort of expected utility calculation. Would you mind explaining how Hubble does this?

Science advances in the wackiest of ways more often than not, and the idea that the Hubble Telescope is essential to a better future for humanity is not so far fetched. For all the resources put forth to construct and maintain the Hubble thus far I would consider it a shame to see it degrade. And I would also consider it a shame if a shuttle full of astronauts died in the name of its upkeep.

I'm keeping my cake and eating at my leisure.

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The Rabbit
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There are so many problems with that cost benefit analysis that it's hard to know where to begin.

Let's start with the most obvious one. The Hubble telescope is 22 years old. Twenty two years in orbit take their toll on things, hence the telescope is no longer a 4 billion dollar asset. Repairing it won't restore it to it's new condition. If you repair what's wrong right now, other stuff is very likely to fail soon. As with any older piece of equipment, there comes a point at which it is no longer worth fixing even though the current repair cost is much less than the replacement cost. NASA estimates that every successful space shuttle flight costs 1.5 billion. At some point it's simply more economical to start putting the money towards new projects than continuing to repair an aging telescope.

The next most obvious problem is that a lot more is risked in any space mission than the lives of the astronauts. It's silly to even talk about the risk of loosing one live. There has never been a space mission where one person died and everyone else returned safely. If lives are lost, so is the space shuttle and so is the reputation of the space program. Every failed mission makes it less likely that future missions will be undertaken.

The question isn't is one astronauts life worth 28 billion. The question is, is it worth spending 1.5 billion, risking 7 lives and a space shuttle and possibly the future of the space program in order to repair an aging telescope that is very likely to fail again soon.

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rivka
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Well put, Rabbit.
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Lyrhawn
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Ultimately I think you need to ask the astronauts. If they know the risk but feel its worth it, then let then go.
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Kwea
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I don't. The astronauts aren't the best people to decide policy on this. I'd say the engineers know more about it, the costs, the risks, and the benefits than all of us combined, so I'd let them make the call.
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Shigosei
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Questions of how to put a price tag on an astronaut's life aside, the idea of human life having a dollar value is an interesting one. My knee-jerk reaction is to be bothered by it, but I'm not sure that it's necessarily a bad thing -- we make trade-offs all the time, and knowing how much a particular decision to save a life costs helps us get the best bang for our buck. The government has a limited amount of money to spend. Let's say it's true that the value of an astronaut's life in this case would be worth $28 billion. The government isn't choosing between $28 billion and the astronaut; it's choosing between the astronaut and all the lives that $28 billion might save if it were spent on vaccines or research or transportation safety. Yes there are many other considerations (risks to the the future of our space program if there is a disaster), but it's not entirely callous to put a price tag on life.

[ July 18, 2012, 02:50 AM: Message edited by: Shigosei ]

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Aris Katsaris
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quote:
Let's say it's true that the value of an astronaut's life in this case would be worth $28 billion. The government isn't choosing between $28 billion and the astronaut; it's choosing between the astronaut and all the lives that $28 billion might save if it were spent on vaccines or research or transportation safety.
I think this argument is slightly confused, because it mixes up values and costs. The 28$ billions-per-astronaut was supposed to be an supposed estimate of the *cost* of an astronaut dying (the value of their continued lives), which was estimated by considering the supposed 4 billion cost of losing the Hubble divided by the probability of losing the astronauts .

The above calculations were silly btw. The Rabbit describes some of the problems quite well.

But either way, these 28$ billions don't become magically available as vaccines, regardless of what choice NASA makes. The supposed value is already shaped into the form "Hubble" and the form of "the astronauts" -- neither of which are easily transformed into vaccines.

[ July 18, 2012, 05:34 AM: Message edited by: Aris Katsaris ]

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Orincoro
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Considering that the sum of 28 million dollars is considerably above Nasa's actual operating budget for a year, yes, the calculation is a little questionable.
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Hobbes
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Several US agencys actually do calculate the value of a human life, so no need to infer based on non-applicable desicions like this NASA thing. Here's a link; these are agencies that have to divide up money that is directly or indirectly spent on saving lives and thus must figure out how to spend that money.

Looks like the current estimate is 6-7 million.

Hobbes [Smile]

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Stone_Wolf_
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quote:
Originally posted by Kwea:
The astronauts aren't the best people to decide policy on this. I'd say the engineers know more about it, the costs, the risks, and the benefits than all of us combined, so I'd let them make the call.

Sure, let the higher ups decide -if- there should be mission or not. -Then- ask for volunteers.

Astronauts aren't marines, just to be ordered their deaths because that's what they signed up for.

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Lyrhawn
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quote:
Originally posted by Kwea:
I don't. The astronauts aren't the best people to decide policy on this. I'd say the engineers know more about it, the costs, the risks, and the benefits than all of us combined, so I'd let them make the call.

They can tell you the odds, after that, its no longer a math question, its a question anyone can answer using their own criteria. The astronauts are pretty damn smart, or they wouldn't be astronauts. They can understand the stakes when explained by engineers, and decide if its worth risking their own lives.
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kmbboots
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quote:
Originally posted by Stone_Wolf_:
quote:
Originally posted by Kwea:
The astronauts aren't the best people to decide policy on this. I'd say the engineers know more about it, the costs, the risks, and the benefits than all of us combined, so I'd let them make the call.

Sure, let the higher ups decide -if- there should be mission or not. -Then- ask for volunteers.

Astronauts aren't marines, just to be ordered their deaths because that's what they signed up for.

What a charming attitude about the worth of the human beings who are marines.

[ July 18, 2012, 12:47 PM: Message edited by: kmbboots ]

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Shigosei
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quote:
Originally posted by Aris Katsaris:
But either way, these 28$ billions don't become magically available as vaccines, regardless of what choice NASA makes. The supposed value is already shaped into the form "Hubble" and the form of "the astronauts" -- neither of which are easily transformed into vaccines.

Yeah, good point. I was using it as an example to make the case that putting a monetary value on life wasn't necessarily bad, but I should have used a different example involving actual spending. TSA funding, perhaps.
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Stone_Wolf_
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
What a charming attitude about the worth of the human beings who are marines.

I apologize if I phrased that indelicately. All I meant was that when you sign up for the Corps, you know you will be putting your life on the line as your job. And while astronauts also have risk as a part of their job, it is not the same level as combat troops, who knowingly chose that path.
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Geraine
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Honestly I would freely volunteer for any risky space mission.

If there was a colonization mission with very small survival rate, I would sign up without hesitation. It would be too exciting for me to pass up.

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Stone_Wolf_
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Are you single? If I were, I might have the same attitude.
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AchillesHeel
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I am single, and I would happily accept the possibility of an imminent end if I were able to leave the planet. They put chimps and dogs in rockets so why not an uneducated clerk?

If I had a one percent chance to be even the one thousandth person to step foot on Mars I wouldn't care about the risk at all. We are all gonna die, but what if you knew you could die doing something so impossible as traveling on a space ship.

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Geraine
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quote:
Originally posted by Stone_Wolf_:
Are you single? If I were, I might have the same attitude.

Nope, I am married. Luckily my wife is obsessed with space, so she said she would go with me if the opportunity ever arises. [Smile]
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PSI Teleport
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quote:
That's a 2% chance of killing seven people, which works out to a 14% chance of killing one person.
Once again, me and probability can't be friends.

By this I mean, the actual odds of a vehicle failure that results in the death of only one person would be be unrelated to the odds of a vehicle failure that kills all seven. Different accidents have different results and all that.

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rivka
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PSI, the sentence you quoted makes little probabilistically. One of the many weaknesses of the article. [Razz]
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Aris Katsaris
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PSI Teleport, the article doesn't really mean 2% chance of killing 7 people means 14% chance of killing one person, it means that for the purposes of cost-benefit analysis it should be treated as the *moral equivalent* of a 14% chance of killing one person.
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rivka
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That makes less sense. Also, moral equivalence is irrelevant for a financial cost-benefit analysis.
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Aris Katsaris
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quote:
That makes less sense
Less sense than what?

Lots of people believe that e.g. a 50% chance for the death of two people is about the same (in moral terms) as 100% chance for the death of one person.

It's the "shut up and multiply" principle.

quote:
Also, moral equivalence is irrelevant for a financial cost-benefit analysis.
No, it's not. If e.g. I have to choose between giving money to two charities, and for Charity A, I believe "I'll save one human life for the price of $100 ", and for Charity B I believe "I'll save two human lives for the price of $150" -- charity B provides me a better cost-benefit.

If the same charity tells me "We can use the money you sent us to either save for sure one human life, or have 50% chance of saving two human lives", I might tell them 'all other things being equal, these two are practically morally equivalent, so (if that's all the information I have to go on) you may do as you feel like.'

But if they tell me "We can use the money you sent us to either (A) save an innocent young child's life or (B) save the lives of three convicted rapist-murderers", I might very well assign greater moral value to the life of the innocent child than to the lives of three rapist-murderers, so I may very well choose the single life of (A) over the three lives of (B).

So you see the moral value you assign to things is very significant in any cost-benefit analysis. Because 'moral value' is just a subset of 'value' in general.

[ July 19, 2012, 06:27 AM: Message edited by: Aris Katsaris ]

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Dogbreath
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
quote:
Originally posted by Stone_Wolf_:
quote:
Originally posted by Kwea:
The astronauts aren't the best people to decide policy on this. I'd say the engineers know more about it, the costs, the risks, and the benefits than all of us combined, so I'd let them make the call.

Sure, let the higher ups decide -if- there should be mission or not. -Then- ask for volunteers.

Astronauts aren't marines, just to be ordered their deaths because that's what they signed up for.

What a charming attitude about the worth of the human beings who are marines.
Yeah... [Frown]

Do you think you'd really have to ask the astronauts to volunteer? They've dedicated their entire lives to becoming an astronaut, they know the risk and I doubt you'd find many who aren't willing to take it. It's not like you could force them anyway - they could just say no.

From my own personal point of view, though, I'd say it's better to take that 2% risk and possibly die doing something great than to live those extra 30 or 40 years regretting. Or worse, die in a car crash the next week. Life is full of risks like that. People don't become Astronauts or Marines, or for that matter, eat steak or go on roller coaster rides or play sports, because living as long as possible is their #1 priority in life.

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Samprimary
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Does anyone remember the name of the russian cosmonaut who willingly went up in a deathtrap rocket that he pretty much KNEW was going to kill him, because he wanted to save the life of another cosmonaut, possibly Yuri? It seems halfway relevant, if anyone can dredge up the story.
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Rakeesh
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It's a strange dilemma, in this case. Astronauts while risking their lives aren't exactly in the same group as military-I don't mean because they're superior or anything, but rather because while they can say no, and they are pretty much guaranteed to be quite a lot more informed than a soldier about the real risks of an assignment (how many people and what do they have are in that building, exactly?)...they're similar in that they will also be asked to risk their lives by the government.

Not just the 'this massive construction project will probably cost a life or two', but 'you, personally, stand a significant chance of dying, even if everything goes right'. On the *other* hand, astronauts are volunteers for that danger in ways almost no other soldier is, having to navigate so much more in the way of training and selection, as well as having that last right of refusal.

So ultimately I think there will be times when we shouldn't send out a call for astronauts for a given assignment...but as also shouldn't necessarily refuse to do so on their behalf, since they're likely to be better judges of risk than nearly anyone.

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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by Rakeesh:
Astronauts while risking their lives aren't exactly in the same group as military

Only to a slight degree. There's a reason why the main way to become an astronaut used to be via a military career: the job entails a similar degree of both risk and reliance on decisions made higher on the chain of command.
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Rakeesh
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Sure, that's what I was trying to say. There are many similarities but also quite a few notable differences. One of them is that there is a difference between ordering someone who has asked to obey (so to speak, referring to our volunteer military-who has agreed to place themselves under authority) and asking someone who has asked to be asked. If that makes sense. The person or group doing the asking or ordering is obligated to both, but not in exactly the same way.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is that there's a difference between ordering someone to risk their life against another person actively trying to kill them, and between asking someone to risk their life with human ingenuity (and sometimes negligence) against an uncaring environment. Even though both people may well be just as dead after the attempt, I think there's still a difference. I'm still thinking about it, but the compulsory obedience of the volunteer soldier demands a higher care for their welfare than does the astronaut, or perhaps in a different way.

Maybe if I say it this way, what I'm getting at will be clearer. We owe it to both the volunteer soldier and the astronaut to place a very high value on their lives, to make sure they are risked and even spent in good cause. But because the volunteer soldier has said, "I agree to make it illegal for me to refuse (in many cases)," we have a higher degree of responsibility. That soldier hasn't just agreed to risk their life, he or she has agreed to let the decision of when rest in our hands, too. The astronaut agrees to risk their life as well, but hasn't given us obedience.

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rivka
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I'm not sure I agree with that either, but I'll think on it.
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Dogbreath
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quote:
Originally posted by rivka:
quote:
Originally posted by Rakeesh:
Astronauts while risking their lives aren't exactly in the same group as military

Only to a slight degree. There's a reason why the main way to become an astronaut used to be via a military career: the job entails a similar degree of both risk and reliance on decisions made higher on the chain of command.
John Glenn was a Marine.

Rakeesh - in both examples choice is involved. The astronaut gives up his ability to choose the moment the shuttle takes off, for example. The time in space may be shorter than a 4 year contract, but it's far more binding.

(for that matter, I think you get a good idea of what risks you're taking when you join the military. I joined the Marines well aware that I'd likely get shot at - if I didn't want to accept that, I would have joined the Navy or Air Force)

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