Risk Averse

During my travels I always carry a paperback to read.  A book that I finished recently was a history (my usual subject) concerning some German emigrants to America in the 1840’s.  Their story was entirely typical:  conditions in their village had deteriorated and they were lured by glowing stories of the opportunities in the United States.  So they sold their houses and all their goods and made their way to the port at Antwerp.  Unscrupulous characters soon fleeced them.  Broke and alone in a country where they had no resources and did not speak the language, the putative emigrants were forced to beg for food and shelter.  Some died.  A shipowner agreed to provide them passage to the new world in exchange for indentured service upon arrival.  The ocean voyage was miserable, the crew was inept, they ran out of food, water, encountered storms, and about a third of the party died during the voyage.  Shortly after arrival in port, a smallpox epidemic took another third of the company.  The survivors were marched off to indentured servitude; the remnants of families torn asunder.  Only the strongest, or the luckiest, survived.


As I said, a story that was very typical.  Few people made it easily to the “land of opportunity.”


My great-grandfather was of German emigrant descent; that book could have been the story of his parents.  I never knew him since he died before I was born, but I knew my great-grandmother, and I’ve written about her before:




As a very young boy my parents would take me to visit her in central Oklahoma.  As a young girl, she had walked alongside the family wagon as they moved west to new territory in search of land and a better life.  Yet she lived will into her 90s and saw the beginnings of the space age.  


And I had to wonder, as I thought of her and of the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of the pioneers who made this country strong, affluent, and powerful, do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?  My grandmother was old, small, and frail when I knew her.  What shone through during those visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness in communication that made you forget the frailty of old age.  Her stark assessment of those pioneer days is still fresh in my memory:  “The cowards never started, and the weak ones died along the way.”  She faced that hardship and danger and had a better life than if her family had not taken the risk to move west.


What is it, I wonder, that has made America a great nation?  Abundant natural resources are part of it.  The availability of cheap labor was a factor.  But other peoples have had cheap labor and abundant resources and have not succeeded in building a strong nation.  I believe that it is due the American character; an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow.  We have become the envy and wonder of the world not because of our wealth and power, but because of our character.


My great-great-grandparents certainly had some appreciation of the risks they incurred by moving west, but they could not have fully understood it.  They knew Risk in the Big Sense: danger, hardship, and death threatened their way:  accidents, disease, wild animals (wolves, bears, and snakes), hostile natives, terrible weather, and the difficulty of travel through the wilderness, all of these they must have recognized.  But the details would have been only vaguely understood.  The details of hardship were of secondary importance, they knew the Big Risk well enough.  They took what preparations they could, and they set out.


My great-grandfather made mistakes; he literally lost the ranch in the great depression.  But overall, they avoided the Big Mistake:  not taking a worthwhile risk.  Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.”  That is not permission to do what you know is wrong, but it is an admonition not to be paralyzed to inaction by the prospect that you might be doing something wrong. 


Today we live in the luxury of their legacy.  Our greatest hardship may be mowing the grass; our greatest risk may be driving on the freeway.  These challenges just don’t compare with what our great-grandparents faced every day.  Have we lost the capability to weigh risk and reward, hardship and hope, difficulty and opportunity as they did?

So the fundamental question remains, do we have those qualities that made our ancestors successful?  Do we have the judgment to weigh it all in the balance?  Do we have the character to dare great deeds? 


History is watching. 



Recently, I was in a public meeting where NASA was castigated as being “risk averse”.  Is that a fair assessment, I wondered?  


Then I remembered the words of one of my heroes, Capt. John Young:  “We put seven people on top of 6 million pounds of high explosives and launch them into orbit at speeds six times faster than a rifle bullet.  What part of that sounds safe to you?”


Well said.  I couldn’t add to that statement.


It is easy to accuse someone of being risk averse when you personally don’t have to make tough decisions with real consequences.  At NASA we make hard decisions every day and the whole world gets to watch and see if we got it right.


I wouldn’t have it any other way.


I think my great-grandparents would have approved.

10 thoughts on “Risk Averse”

  1. Only time will tell if we have the fortitude to advance and succeed as a nation.My thoughts are that we as a world and nation certainly have become a lot softer then our ancestors were but isn`t that normal as we progress both in work and living? Doesn`t progress go hand and hand with doing things faster and better and with less risk? I still think that if confronted with a major problem we as a people of the world would step up to the plate and give it our best.

  2. I don’t see NASA as risk averse, I see them as risk conscious. I often get asked why shuttle launches keep getting delayed, and why NASA seems to have lost the courage of the early space program. Usually I tell them that 1: Florida weather is not the easiest to negotiate launch dates with, something I experienced first hand last week, when I just barely managed to catch the STS-128 launch. One more delay and I would have been well on my way home.
    2: In the space race, NASA had to do things quickly to meet president Kennedy’s goal, and space flight was new and the risks were not as fully understood. Today, NASA isn’t risk averse, but you have more knowledge about space flight and the risks that are out there. You now know more about what to look out for, what the signs are that something isn’t right and you know what is required to fly successfully, and as safe as possible.

    Some of this knowledge has come the hard way, and lets hope the knowledge of spaceflight NASA and the space community now has, is enough to prevent more space disasters, at least for as long as humanly possible. Accidents will happen of course, but because you now are more conscious about the risks, I think the odds for something serious happening during a flight is considerably less than it was during the space race.

    Bottom line: NASA hasn’t lost its edge, but simply been paying attention in class and knows that the decisions made on a day-by-day basis, with human lives hanging in the balance, should not be taken lightly, and the decisions should be made by analyzing as much data as possible about a problem before coming to a decision.

  3. John Young’s comment is a classic! There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few days ago about the Pro’s and Con’s of sending Humans to Mars – one way – no return ticket. It reasoned that in the past humans have often started a earthly voyage to a “New World” knowing they will not return, and have no means of return, and why shouldn’t we do the same in relation to going to Mars? Your post has the same reasoning to me. Lets GO!

  4. Quite insteresting. I was quite surprised to know about some of the historical facts of America.

    Thank you for the moving and inspiring post.

  5. Social capital of the people of United States and NASA

    Hi Wayne,

    I’m the Peter Egan with three ‘papers’ on the HSF committee website.

    My work interest these days is social capital of organisations from a very practical perspective – like what is my job really about and what should we talk about in meetings.

    I think it a normal human desire to want to create a better life for oneself and family and to take risks to achieve it. It does not explain the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand. What does explain them is the social capital of the early European settlers.

    The social capital of the people of the UK was such that it could create colonies in America capable of revolting against the mother nation to build an even greater one, and then to set about building a jail at far-off Botany bay that resulted in Australia.

    Questions of success or otherwise find their answers in social capital. I don’t have the time to go into this at great length today, but would be happy to discuss off-line with you the social capital of the people of the United States and NASA, and how NASA might improve its already good management.


  6. This post is very inspiring. I think I will email the link to my 16 year old son to read. Sometimes I wonder if our children really understand what hardship looks like… I know I don’t half the time.

  7. Wayne…who knew you were such a great writer!

    Thank you for this inspiring reminder about what we Americans are, or rather should be, all about. We take this great country with all its many resources, and its foibles, too much for granted.

    Keep writing!

  8. “an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow”

    You make an excellent point. I think overall, we do not have the qualities of our ancestors. It's not that we aren't capable taking risks and going through hardship though. We seem to adapt to our environment. When times are tough, people get tougher. When times are relaxed, people get softer.

    Add into this the mentality of quick results and quick fixes that have we have all been bombarded with over the years, something as simple as mowing the grass as you mentioned can be seen as hardship. Our willingness to risk has gone way down compared to our ancestors and I think that is because they didn't want to settle, they couldn't.

    How many of us today ever have to face life and death situations? Most people are comfortable with where they are probably because they've gotten used to the “better life” that our great-grandparents have helped created for us. The movers and shakers of the world are people who have a high risk tolerance. Certainly, attaching people on top of 6 million pounds of explosives is high risk and that is why NASA is shaking the world.

    This is probably one of my favorite of your so far.

  9. This was a very interesting read. I am German myself and it interests me to read how former generations tried to adapt in the US. It is like everything in this world, if you see opportunities than you have to grasp them. Off course not everyone will reach their goals and fail on their way trying.

    If you compare the hard life to our lives now it is a bare contrast. Back than you were poor because you had no money and food. Now you are considered poor when you don't have a creditcard of a flatscreen. Somewhere on our way to technical revolution something went very wrong.
    Thanks for the . Hope you can recommend some more books.

    Regards, Alex

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