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Review: Safe Is Not an Option

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Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space
by Rand Simberg
Interglobal Media LLC, 2013
softcover, 240 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-9891355-1-1

Last week, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report, summarizing its concerns about safety issues in the space agency. That report, like those in recent years, examined NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs, the International Space Station, and development of the Space Launch System and Orion. In the report’s cover letter, ASAP chairman Joseph W. Dyer specifically raised concerns about the funding for the commercial crew program (CCP), which has fallen short of the administration’s request in recent years. “This shortfall is seriously impacting acquisition strategy, and there is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety,” he writes.

“Is perfection the goal or is ‘safe enough’ the objective?” ASAP asks in its report.

This year’s ASAP report, though, devoted a section to defining risk and safety, titled “How Safe Is Safe Enough?” NASA, the report stated, has a methodology where it establishes a risk “threshold,” below which risk of operating a particular system is considered intolerable; and a risk “goal” that is considered a minimum for long-term operations of that system. A system whose safety falls between that threshold and goal can operate, so long as there is a “continuous safety improvement” process that reduces the risk towards that goal.

While that methodology makes sense in abstract terms, how should NASA calculate what those risk threshold and goal levels should be? “Is perfection the goal or is ‘safe enough’ the objective?” ASAP asks in its report. “It is unfortunate that we must use terms like ‘safe enough’ rather than ‘perfect,’ but we must also realize that there is no such thing as guaranteed mission success.” That statement’s use of the word “unfortunate” strikes one as a bit odd: while perfection may be an idealized goal of a spaceflight system—or any other mode of transportation—it is also an unattainable one, as no mode of transportation is perfect. Every year, people die using bicycles, cars, buses, trains, boats, and aircraft; why should spacecraft be any different?

Yet, today, NASA leaders and elected officials often state that safety is of paramount importance. For example, in a February 2012 press release, Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district at the time included NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said, “Safety is the most critical component of human space exploration. This is a no brainer for NASA.” If that’s true, some argue, then safety can be maximized by not flying them at all. Indeed, to take that argument to its logical, if absurd, conclusion, astronaut safety can achieve perfection if there are, in fact no astronauts: after all, no astronauts can die if there are no astronauts in the first place. Clearly, some amount of risk must be considered acceptable, but how much?

In Safe Is Not an Option, aerospace engineer and longtime blogger Rand Simberg argues that spaceflight requires a greater tolerance of risk than what NASA and its stakeholders appear willing to accept today. As he recounts in the book’s early chapters, exploration and settlement, as well as the development of new modes of transportation, have historically been risky, with countless fatalities. Space, he argues, should be no different, but the same tolerance of risk—and death—seen in the past is missing today, at least in government-funded programs.

Part of that low tolerance for risk, Simberg argues, is because human spaceflight today isn’t considered that important by the general public. There is a greater acceptance of accidents and deaths in the military, even outside of combat, because of the much higher priority given to national defense. In the book, he cites a study that found that, in the Navy and Marine Corps alone, there were nearly 12,000 aircraft accidents from 1949 to 1988, killing more than 8,500 crewmembers. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find anyone arguing that the Navy and Marines should ground their forces, given the importance they play in defending the nation. Even NASA, he notes, was more willing to accept risk when it was racing the Soviets to the Moon in the 1960s.

A secondary factor, one that is not emphasized in the book, is also NASA’s relatively high visibility. Simberg notes that NASA and its international partners considered abandoning the International Space Station in 2011 after the failure of a Soyuz booster carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft delayed launches of replacement crews. With only a limited on-orbit lifetime for the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS that serve as “lifeboats” for the crews, the ISS partners thought it would be safer to bring the crew back—risking losing the ISS and many billions of dollars invested in it should something happen to it without a crew to maintain it—than keeping a crew on past the Soyuz’s expiration date. (In the end, the Soyuz rocket returned to service in time, and the station remained occupied.)

Simberg contrasts this with the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which has no means to allow its occupants to escape during the long polar winter, even though there have been medical issues, and one fatality, among crews that have had to “winter over” at the base. A big difference between Amundsen-Scott and the ISS, though, is that the latter is much better known and visible to the public. NASA’s high public profile—an artifact, perhaps, of its Space Race origins—magnifies both success and failure; the latter may contribute to the low tolerance for risk this book laments.

“Obviously, in the twenty-first century, we don’t value life as cheaply as we have historically, but somehow, modern society has seemingly placed almost infinite value on a human life, at least when it comes to space,” Simberg writes.

Giving NASA’s human spaceflight program a more meaningful, and important, set of goals could go a long way towards changing its risk acceptance. The emergence of commercial human spaceflight systems, both suborbital and orbital, may also affect that calculus. It’s possible that a ticket-purchasing customer—a “spaceflight participant” in government jargon—may have a higher tolerance for risk than a government agency. For example, NASA currently will fund the flights of experiments on commercial suborbital vehicles, but not of researchers or even astronauts, yet someone possessing little more than reasonably good health and a sufficiently large bank account can buy a ticket to fly on the same vehicle.

That tolerance of risk by spaceflight participants may change, though, when (not if) there’s an accident, and some in the industry fear a regulatory overreaction when that accident takes place. Simberg offers some recommendations to try and avoid overregulating this emerging industry, from extending the current “learning period” that limits the FAA’s ability to promulgate safety regulations (it currently is set to expire in October 2015) to creating the space equivalent of maritime classification societies to self-regulate the industry (see “Taking a page from maritime practice to self-regulate the commercial space industry”, The Space Review, March 4, 2013).

Simberg states that he wrote Safe Is Not an Option to start a dialogue on what he considers the current “irrational” approach to human spaceflight safety by NASA and its stakeholders. That debate, he notes, is tied to the purpose of human spaceflight, which he argues ultimately should be opening the space frontier for settlement. But modern society, he acknowledges, is less willing to accept loss of life in opening new frontiers—or doing about anything else—than it has in the past. “Obviously, in the twenty-first century, we don’t value life as cheaply as we have historically, but somehow, modern society has seemingly placed almost infinite value on a human life, at least when it comes to space,” he writes. “If that condition remains, the pattern of the past half century will continue, and very few people will leave the planet—at least Americans.”

It’s not clear whether Safe Is Not an Option will start that dialogue on the purpose of human spaceflight and the level of risk deemed acceptable to achieve those goals. In an era of uncertain goals and limited budgets, though, it is a conversation worth having, regardless of who starts it.