When billionaire Jeff Bezos straps into the capsule of his company rocket ship next week, he and his fellow passengers will be taking a calculated risk to life and limb in their suborbital flight. Just 382 spaceflights have launched from the US, and four of those ended catastrophically.
That works out to a failure rate of about one in 100 – vastly higher than commercial air travel, which has a one in a million incident rate, or most other terrestrial activities, according to analysis from the Center for Space Policy and Strategy. “Until we get lots of experience, like we’ve had with millions of airplane flights over the years, then there’s going to be some learning involved,” the report’s co-author George Nield told Insider’s Morgan McFall-Johnsen. “With cars and boats and planes and trains, people die every year. And spaceflight is not going to be any different when it comes to that.”
But when viewed another way, US space flight accidents have claimed the lives of far fewer people than the numbers who die from on-the-job injuries. According to US labor statistics, roughly 5,000 workers die each year, compared with 15 astronauts who have died in the history of US spaceflight.
What’s more, of the 5,333 US workers who died in 2019 alone, more than 913 were in the transportation and warehouse industry. In other words, if a worker dies on the job, there’s a strong probability they were driving a truck or working in warehouse.
Across all industries, more than half of worker deaths came from either transportation incidents or slips, trips, and falls. Rates of non-fatal injury and illness are naturally far higher. In 2019, there were roughly three incidents per 100 workers in which a person suffered illness or injury on the job that required at least one day off work.
It is difficult to make direct statistical comparisons between spaceflight and other activities in part because the industry is still so new, which magnifies the risk. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration is presently barred from issuing regulations related to the health and safety of spaceflight participants.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket has flown 15 times since 2015, including three successful tests of its emergency-escape system that jettisons the passenger capsule away in the event of a failing rocket. Bezos’ flight will be the spacecraft’s first with humans aboard. Blue Origin’s approach to product development is “far less risky” than NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, which had a full crew for its very first flight, John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider’s McFall-Johnsen.
Meanwhile on Earth, drivers with Amazon’s delivery partners have described how the delivery scheduling app sometimes instructs them to run across many lanes of traffic, or they have to choose between fulfilling quotas or driving safely.
One of Bezos’ final acts as CEO was to highlight the problem the company currently has with on-the-job injuries, and pledge to make Amazon “the world’s safest place to work.”
In his letter to shareholders, Bezos said he will make workplace safety one of his key areas of focus in his continued role as Executive Chair. The company will invest $300 million in 2021 to cut workplace injuries in half by 2025, including a $66 million project to prevent forklift and industrial vehicle collisions.
“Bezos is a risk-taker,” Logsdon said. “He certainly understands that there are risks involved [in spaceflight], and probably has a good handle on how risky it is.”
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