Donald Robertson wrote a five-star review of the book, but apparently Amazon is getting overly (in my opinion) strict about who is allowed to review books there. So I’m publishing it here:
Rand Simberg’s “Safe is Not an Option” is an absolute must read for anyone interested in space policy, and why our expansion into space has been frozen in place for decades. The book was first published in late 2013 and the author insisted to me that parts of it are out of date. He is correct, but in any meaningful sense, it could have been written this afternoon. I should state up front that, with a few very minor exceptions, I fully agree with his analysis, and came to many of the same conclusions independently. Mr. Simberg writes well and this is a fun book to read.
Mr. Simberg, an aerospace engineer, argues what should be obvious: spending the majority of your budget to ensure the safety of astronauts in the most inherently dangerous activity humanity has ever tacked is excellent way to ensure you never accomplish anything – or the way I put it, to price yourself out of the game. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to most in our government, who insist that safety is their first and last priority. By extension, this means safety must also be NASA’s highest priority. Not only does this attitude not make sense, it is unique to spaceflight. We routinely lose hundreds of people every year in deep sea shipping accidents, and we tolerate all the risk involved in driving a car, to ourselves and to third parties, for no better reason than convenience. But, we still insist on spending billions in a hopeless endeavor not to lose a single astronaut. Mr. Simberg argues that this devalues spaceflight – space exploration is not important enough to allow volunteers to take the same risks they take driving to the space port.
Less obviously, Mr. Simberg argues convincingly that this attitude actually reduces safety. Following the decision to move on from the Space Shuttle, then NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin rejected using existing rockets with excellent track records. He reoriented the constellation project to use almost the entire space exploration budget developing Ares-1, because he claimed it would have been safer, In fact, it would have been anything but. According to Mr. Simberg, by the time the project was cancelled as unaffordable, estimated costs had ballooned to $44 Billion. Since Ares-1 essentially duplicated already existing capabilities, that’s $44 Billion that could not be spent exploring. Part of that cost was due to many ad hoc systems introduced to “improve safety” – which also increased complexity and introduced new opportunities for things to go wrong.
There is one key area where I disagree with Mr. Simberg. While I think the introduction of a US Space Guard to manage human spaceflight, modeled after the US Coast Guard, is an excellent idea, it makes no sense to put it under Air Force management. Traditional Air Force operations are mostly, though not exclusively military, and generally involve short sorties supplied from the homeland or a small number of bases. Any serious attempt to explore the Solar System will involve long travel times through an extraordinarily dangerous medium, civilian as well as military responsibilities, living off the land as much as possible, and the ability to make decisions and act independently forced by long communication times. These characteristics sound a lot more like traditional naval operations, and any USSG should be under the Navy – or better, an independent organization. We agree that NASA should return to their research and development roots.
Until recently, spaceflight was a bipartisan policy arena, with varying support by both Republicans and Democrats. Mr. Simberg’s conservative political orientation leaks through in the occasional irritatingly snide remark, but overall, this is a refreshingly neutral book that this liberal Democrat can fully get behind. Mr. Simberg explicitly criticizes some Republican space policies, and praises Mr. Obama’s efforts to replace what constellation had become with a more affordable, technically diverse, and semi-commercialized space program. He outlines specific policies that could thaw United States space exploration and stimulate it to life.
Had “safety” been better balanced with accomplishing mission goals and keeping costs low enough to fly often, people still would have been lost – inevitably – but much more could have been accomplished for their lives. The idea that we can conquer the Solar System without losing lives is patently absurd – yet we insist on managing our space program as if that were an achievable goal. I have argued that if we are not willing to reconsider that, we might as well stop wasting our money. Mr. Simberg provides a detailed analysis, from an engineer’s perspective, of what needs to change. Of course, everything is taking longer and costing more than Mr. Simberg assumed when he wrote the book. Fortunately, in the increasingly diverse and commercial nature of human spaceflight, there are small, early signs that the long winter may indeed be ending.
Thank you, Donald. I’m glad my “occasional irritating snide remarks” didn’t cost it a star. 🙂