In 1970, the Apollo 13 astronauts and their ground crews, in responding to the life-threatening crisis caused by an exploding fuel cell, epitomized the indomitable human spirit that seeks to overcome extreme adversity. Failure, and with it losing the astronauts, was not regarded as "an option." However, saving the astronauts was neither the most probable outcome of that particular crisis nor was it preordained in any way.
In space exploration, and life in general, the reality is that failure is not an 'option'; rather, it is an inevitability. Failure can happen in any human endeavor. Sometimes it is the result of carelessness. Sometimes it is the result of the misapplication, or lack, of knowledge. Sometimes it is the result of a lack of sufficient resources, and sometimes it can even be as a result of a lack of sufficient will. But failures can and do happen no matter how hard we humans strive for perfection, no matter how much we try to anticipate, and guard against, possible failure points. We are imperfect beings living in an imperfect universe, so in our efforts to better understand, and yes, explore, that universe, failures can occur despite our best efforts to avoid them. Indeed, picking ourselves up, brushing ourselves off, and then learning from our mistakes, is what defines us as human beings.
The early years of our space program also taught us that risk and failure are part of the equation, without which we could not gain new understanding nor achieve what had previously been only the stuff of dreams. Without many trials, and many errors, we would never have achieved spaceflight.
Unfortunately, when one operates at the boundary of human knowledge, as NASA is tasked to do, failures can occur. Sometimes these failures are small; sometimes they cost a lot of time, money, and resources; and sometimes they even cost lives.
For example, in January 1967, the Apollo I crew members, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, perished in a fire on the launch pad. This was a national tragedy, but the Apollo program nevertheless continued. Mistakes were found and processes were improved. We didn't give up - and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon two and a half years later. Indeed, many astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, thought their chances of success on the first voyage to the moon were no better than fifty percent. Yet that didn't stop the moon landings. And our space program did not end as a result of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. Instead, in the midst of our collective grief and anguish, we worked to correct the causes of those failures.
However, risk aversion inhibits and hampers our space program today. This fear also contributes significantly to space exploration budgets, as mission designers must plan for every possible contingency, no matter how remote or improbable, and develop multiple redundancies that are far beyond what would normally be deemed prudent in any other context. To be clear, NASA and other space exploration entities must take reasonable and necessary precautions to protect the lives of astronauts and others, but these requirements must be based more on measurable safety improvements for crew members rather than a fear of failure.
Risk is the foundation of civilization. Without taking risks - stepping out of our comfort zone - humans would not have migrated, built the pyramids, crossed the oceans, and invented the airplane. We certainly must take acceptable risks if we are to move out beyond low Earth orbit and send humans to Mars and to other destinations in our solar system.
Humanity can choose to remain in its cradle; or, with some falls and failures along the way, it can choose, instead, to learn how to walk, run, and then fly among the planets, and then one day, perhaps, among the stars. But the only true failure in failure is to fail to learn from failure. We will never succeed if we don't take any risks whatsoever, and instead we fail to try.
Zucker is director of Political Outreach, Explore Mars, Inc. (ExploreMars.org) and chair of the Space Exploration Alliance's 2016 Legislative Blitz. Fisher is a co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc. and a member of the Explore Mars, Inc. Board of Directors.