Safe is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession with Getting Everyone Back Alive that is Killing Our Expansion into Space. By Rand Simberg. Jackson, WY: Interglobal Media, LLC, 2013. 242 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0989135511. $19.95 USD, paperback.
Rand Simberg may state it a bit crassly in his title, but the present risk aversion in human spaceflight by NASA is a major detriment to moving forward if our objective is to become a multi-planetary species. Simberg’s thesis is simple: “No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and loss of human life and the space frontier is no different. That we spend untold billions of dollars in a futile attempt to prevent loss of life is both a barrier to opening the space frontier, and a testament to the lack of national importance of doing so” (p. xvii).
From Apollo to the present, Simberg insists, something approach a phobia consumed the NASA as it overemphasized human safety to the detriment of positive developments in innovation and achievement. NASA officials, responding to the caution of members of political elites in the White House and Congress, have demanded outsized safety standards for astronauts that are unattainable. Simberg notes that we accept greater levels of risk for those engaged in Antarctica, why not at least the same level for astronauts. Any that says nothing about the level of risk we accept for all manner of other occupations; a favorite for Simberg is the not insubstantial fatality rate for long-haul truckers. Despite this emphasis on safety, the Space Shuttle program had two very public catastrophic failures with the loss of two orbiters and their crews.
At the same time, this caution, in Simberg’s view, has impeded the persistent objective of ultimately becoming a multi-planetary species. There is no possibility of undertaking voyages to Mars without consciously accepting a greater level of risk than currently tolerated in the human spaceflight endeavor. Of course, the devil is in the details. How much risk is acceptable? How do we know the true nature of the risk? Then we must also ask, acceptable to whom? I would argue that those answers are different depending on where you set in the decision-making system. Astronauts, generally understanding of the technology they use, make decisions about placing their lives on the line with that knowledge. Technical people at NASA have another level of understanding and acceptable of risk. Political appointees and elected officials have a myriad of other priorities make decisions about acceptance of risk based on criteria that is probably less about the technology than about the public perceptions of it. All of this makes for a very difficult issue, one that NASA has failed to come to grips with and our democratic society has largely disregarded until a crisis raises the concern, and not always in a positive way.
Simberg traces in seven chapters the history of NASA’s efforts in the space age—from the heroic age of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo through the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the on-again/off-again Hubble servicing mission in the first decade of the twenty-first century—as well as three chapters on the potential for moving forward. The majority of this book is a sustained dissertation on the history of human spaceflight with the intention of proving that NASA’s overemphasis on 100 percent human safety is incompatible with an expansive human space exploration agenda.
Simberg asserts that NASA should accept a less than perfect human spaceflight safety program; only by doing so will we create the capability to go to the Moon and Mars, to pioneer, and to settle there permanently. He is, no doubt, correct about this. But the real question is how to get past current perspectives. There are no good answers here. Most people do not see the value of human spaceflight—even though they might accept the astronauts at heroes and generally have a positive view of NASA and its activities—and accordingly any loss of life in the endeavor is not readily accepted. This is not true in all government activities; certainly national security is in a different category and although we do not embrace them we are accepting of some level of combat deaths.
Until the rewards—and those need to be carefully defined—of human space spaceflight are recognized as something worth the cost of at least some sacrifice nothing will change. Simberg believes that NASA has implemented approaches to risk avoidance that ensure that innovation is stifled, technological systems remain stagnant, and policies are overtly cautious. He asserts that “settlement and development” is the reason for human spaceflight and only bold actions will achieve that end. I don’t see a way out of this maze at present, because most Americans do not agree that “settlement and development” is an appropriate immediate reason to pursue human spaceflight as a greater good in which loss of life will definitely occur.
Moreover, even if we all accept intellectually that astronaut deaths are a possibility, what does that mean in terms of policy objectives, technology development, and mission planning? The Space Shuttle had a reliability rate of greater than 98 percent—and getting there to that was no small or inexpensive effort—yet the program yielded two catastrophic accidents. As much as anything, and we saw this both with the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, the public and its perceptions have driven NASA’s emphasis on safety,
This represents a major conundrum; the reward of human spaceflight does not support a willingness to risk all to accomplish it. Accordingly, from a NASA perspective there is no impetus to undertake bold initiatives. Simberg is optimistic that commercial entities—Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin or perhaps some other company—might be able to break the cycle of NASA’s orbital interlude. Might we develop a new appreciate for the justification for human spaceflight? So where do we go from here?