I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day I can tell people about Rand Simberg’s new book, Safe Is not an Option—ever since Simberg told me about it at the NewSpace conference last year and then sent me a review copy. Now that it’s available to the public, I can tell people where to get it.
This thing ought to be required reading for anyone considering a career in manned spaceflight, and especially anyone wanting to do business with or work for NASA, and, really, anyone wondering why we haven’t sent people out of low Earth orbit since the 1970s.
To the general public, NASA is synonymous with manned spaceflight innovation, the place for anything truly groundbreaking or envelop-pushing. Thing is, that hasn’t really been true for decades. About the size of it these days is that NASA has an ownership stake in the International Space Station, the biggest, most complex structure ever assembled in space. But the agency no longer has its own manned vehicles, has no real plan for sending people beyond low Earth orbit, and is crumbling under the weight of its own bureaucracy.
Now, before you say anything, let me just add the caveat here that I’m taking specifically about the manned program. NASA and its partners continue to do grand things in the unmanned arena and is still unmatched there.
And there are true innovators in NASA’s manned program. Witness the brave souls fighting for the life of the commercial crew and cargo program. By partnering with the best of the commercial spaceflight companies, NASA is indeed on the verge of reclaiming the high ground in space with its manned program. But that’s in spite of the bureaucracy that gets the bulk of the funding and press attention.
Why is NASA’s manned program a shadow of the organization that sent people to the moon and damn the risk? The reasons are many and varied, but Simberg, who is a former NASA contractor and a veteran of the Shuttle program, makes a compelling case for one major culprit: an institutional lack of nerve that is reflected in a policy of placing an infinite value on human life.
All innovation requires risk to pull off. NASA has lost its share of unmanned space probes over the years. That’s seen as just part of the business. But the manned program’s unwillingness to deliberately risk its astronauts has, ironically, not only kept the program grounded, but also has created more risk.
Simberg cites as a case study the downing of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It’s the best description, not to mention the most riveting, narrative of the accident I’ve ever read.
He goes on to reveal the inner workings of a system in which paperwork and ass-covering is more important than exploration and in which the term “human rated” is essentially meaningless. It’s a system in which business as usual is the overriding mission, a mission driven by Congressional mandate. From the book:
“Much of the mewling about “safety” by Congress is actually a rationale to continue to prop up the old ways of doing business that have kept us from making much progress in space. It continues to ensure that money flows to the right states and districts—a system that is threatened by any sort of competition.”
Simberg also notes the inconsistencies inherent in mainstream NASA’s aversion to using commercial launch providers for manned orbital flight.
“Also note the glaring inconsistency of declaring commercial providers “unsafe” because NASA doesn’t have sufficient control over them, when in fact NASA flies its astronauts on Soyuz launchers and capsules over which they not only have no control, but have nowhere near the level of technical transparency that they will get from the commercial providers. Many opponents of commercial crew have said that a new commercial rocket must have over a dozen successes before it can be trusted to carry crew. Yet the Air Force is requiring only three successful launches before allowing billion-dollar satellites to be carried. NASA had planned to fly crew on Ares I after only a single test flight; and the very first flight of the Shuttle—a brand new, extremely complex system—occurred with two men aboard.”
And that gets to the crux of the real problem: that NASA’s manned program isn’t really about manned space exploration. It’s about other things entirely. As long as the actual, unacknowledged mission is unchanged, NASA’s manned program won’t be the place where real innovation in space happens.
Simberg’s book is insightful, engaging, and well argued. It’s available on Amazon through a dedicated website, along with some additional goodies: http://safeisnotanoption.com.