Houston, we've had a problem.

Science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10. (Neil Armstrong)

The following information was condensed by me from the Orlando Sentinel (Mike Thomas) and the Sun-Sentinel (Jim Leusner).

  • NASA secretly paid $26.6 million to the families of seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia. This amounts to 3.8 million per family.
  • The Orlando Sentinel requested records in 2005 under the Freedom of Information Act but NASA did not release them until last month. NASA insisted the agency was not trying to delay the records release.
  • Former FBI Director William Webster, a former federal judge, acted as a mediator in negotiating the out-of-court settlements. The money came from the NASA's budget via a 2004 congressional appropriation.
  • The director of the Project on Government Secrecy criticized NASA for not disclosing the settlements earlier. "NASA is behaving as if the settlement is a source of embarrassment. It's not NASA's money. It's public money."
  • Two astronaut families ordered preflight insurance policies through NASA, but the agency failed to obtain the additional coverage before the accident.
  • During mediations a family member suggested to NASA that the agency should buy $3 million to $5 million insurance policies before each flight, as the Canadian Space Agency does for its astronauts.
  • After the 1986 Challenger disaster, four families of the seven astronauts killed reached out-of-court settlements with the Justice Department for a total of $7.7 million.
  • Sixty percent of those costs was paid by Morton Thiokol, maker of the faulty boosters that triggered the Challenger disaster after launch from Kennedy Space Center, documents show. NASA since has helped indemnify defense contractors in such lawsuits.
  • Unlike astronauts, soldiers are not allowed to sue or threaten to sue the government (Ferris Doctrine). NASA apparently does not fall under this protection. A family of a soldier killed in Iraq will get a $100,000 death benefit and the lump sum payment from life insurance if purchased.

It was no shock that the records weren't released in a timely manner. However, the concept of astronaut families suing the government took me by surprise. I had just assumed that NASA was more or less considered like the military in this regard. Given the frequency of NASA disasters it seems obvious that either the astronauts or NASA should purchase life insurance to cover the hazards of flight, training, etc. If they are not able to purchase an adequate benefit, then this issue should be negotiated as part of their contract prior to any launch. I do not think that suing the government is a fair backup plan given the known risks up front.

There is at least one business doing very well following NASA disasters:
'The Krist Law Firm, P.C. is perhaps best known for being the only firm in the United States to have successfully represented families who lost loved ones in every major space disaster in American history, namely the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger explosion, and the Columbia disaster. Since the firm's founding in 1968, their lawyers have brought about more than 100 recoveries in excess of $1 million.'


Allan said...

With all due respect to attorneys we know, I think the heart of the issue is contained in that last last sentence rather than previous ones.

Opportunistic lawyers aside, there's a difference between known risks and negligence. The acceptance of risk is one thing, but if I'd been in one of the immediate families of the Apollo 1 or Challenger crews, I'd have considered legal action, too.

WolfPack said...

All accidents have a root cause. Most of the time there is a humane to blame which means most accidents involve negligence at some level. Many things go wrong all the time it's just that most things that go wrong are recoverable and do not result in catastrophe. Space flight is very dangerous and very complex. As a society we seem to buy into the “Seconds to Disaster” model for placing blame and forget that hindsight is 20/20. What seems obvious now after millions of dollars of investigation may not have been so obvious to the guy who made the fatal decision that was only one of a thousand correct decisions. This is where the risk comes in. After all in any other field of transportation with the limited number of flights our spacecraft have seen even the seasoned space shuttle would be considered a not quite ready for production prototype. The benefit payable on death should be set in advance so that the investigative process to correct the design is not perverted by the legal CYA process.

Hawkeye said...

Here is a question for any lawyers out there.

Lets assume that a fatal accident occurs and that it was caused by human error made by someone other than the injured. All participants understood that human error and fatal accidents were a possibility BEFORE they voluntarily placed themselves into this high risk situation.

Why do astronaut families obtain a settlement while race car driver families do not?

(All professional responses are assumed to be pro bono publico and this is not an implied-in-fact contract)