Simberg: Safe Is Not an Option

 

The successful expansion into space requires tradeoffs in cost and safety. But the government’s obsessively risk-averse regulations are preventing us from being able to make those tradeoffs. That’s the message of the new book by Ricochet member, CEI adjunct scholar and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg. Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space is getting rave reviews from prominent experts, knowledgable politicians, and successful entrepreneurs.

Simberg notes that, throughout the history of exploration, science and technology has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the harshest frontier ever, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death for the humans carrying them out.

In the decades since the end of the Apollo program, human spaceflight has been very expensive and relatively rare (about 500 people total, with a death rate of about 4%), largely because of this risk aversion on the part of the federal government and the wider culture. Whether in government programs or the regulatory approach for commercial spaceflight providers, our attitudes toward safety have been fundamentally irrational, expensive, and even dangerous, generating minimal accomplishment for maximal cost.

Safe Is Not an Option entertainingly explains why this means that we must regulate passenger safety in the new commercial spaceflight industry with a lighter hand than many might instinctively prefer; why NASA must more carefully evaluate rewards from planned missions to rationally determine how much should be spent to avoid the loss of participants; and why Congress must stop insisting that safety is the highest priority. Such insistence is an eloquent testament to how unimportant they and the nation consider the opening of this new frontier.

You can find the book on Amazon, read a review by our own Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist, and follow Rand’s blog posts here and at PJM.

There are 38 comments.

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  1. Instugator Thatcher

    I would hardly characterize 1 catastrophic failure for every ~68 launches within the space shuttle program (2 shuttles lost with all hands) as safe. Not under any circumstances. That Mr. Simberg decries even this modicum of safety speaks volumes about his analytic skills. The problem isn’t the safety culture of NASA, it is the Bureaucracy of NASA. However Mr Simberg, while allowing that the statement that NASA is a ‘jobs program’ is true, vociferously defends NASA against other criticisms – to the point that it becomes impossible to have an objective discussion of the US space program’s merits. Couple that with his willingness to engage in ‘Blame Bush’ shenanigans while giving P. Obama plaudits for what is really benign neglect and then focusing his ire on his Moby Dick in the persona of Senator Shelby (who Rand reminds us was a Democrat ‘just a few years ago’ — Shelby switched parties in 1994!) and what one is left with is the inescapable conclusion that his contributions to Ricochet amount to little more than a marketing ploy.

    • #1
    • March 27, 2014, at 1:17 PM PDT
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  2. Rand Simberg Inactive

    However Mr Simberg, while allowing that the statement that NASA is a ‘jobs program’ is true, vociferously defends NASA against other criticisms – to the point that it becomes impossible to have an objective discussion of the US space program’s merits.

    I do? Who knew?

    So Senator Shelby is beyond criticism? How about the historically/technically challenged Mo Brooks?

    • #2
    • March 27, 2014, at 1:30 PM PDT
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  3. Instugator Thatcher

    Rand Simberg:
    However Mr Simberg, while allowing that the statement that NASA is a ‘jobs program’ is true, vociferously defends NASA against other criticisms – to the point that it becomes impossible to have an objective discussion of the US space program’s merits.
    I do? Who knew?
    So Senator Shelby is beyond criticism? How about the historically/technically challenged Mo Brooks?

     Say, didn’t the current NASA administrator say that P. Obama told him to take actions that a reasonable person could legitimately call “Muslim Outreach” and isn’t it true that you cannot even grasp that such a characterization could legitimately be considered “hyperbole”?

    As for Senator Shelby – I never said he was beyond criticism – I merely point out that you characterize him as having been a democrat in recent memory – while I express that 20 years ago could hardly be called ‘recent’.

    Then again, if 2 catastrophic failures out of 135 attempts is not sufficiently dangerous for you – we seem to have a fundamental disagreement over matters of scale.

    • #3
    • March 27, 2014, at 1:56 PM PDT
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  4. Rand Simberg Inactive

    &em>Say, didn’t the current NASA administrator say that P. Obama told him to take actions that a reasonable person could legitimately call “Muslim Outreach” and isn’t it true that you cannot even grasp that such a characterization could legitimately be considered “hyperbole”?

    Yes, he did say that. As I’ve said repeatedly, it was a stupid thing to say, that has nothing to do with what NASA is actually doing.

    Then again, if 2 catastrophic failures out of 135 attempts is not sufficiently dangerous for you – we seem to have a fundamental disagreement over matters of scale.

    It’s more dangerous to climb Everest. It’s ridiculous to expect it to be safe to open the most harsh frontier ever. As I point out in the book, the real reason we retired Shuttle was not that it was unsafe, but because we couldn’t afford to continue to lose orbiters. We were down to three after Columbia, and they weren’t replaceable.

    • #4
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:01 PM PDT
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  5. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Chief

    As you know, Instugator, personal attacks violate the Code of Conduct. You can argue the issues without insulting the person with whom you disagree. Thank you.

    • #5
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:10 PM PDT
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  6. Rand Simberg Inactive

    I guess after years on the Intertubes, I don’t even notice stuff like that any more.

    BTW, a bug report. I’ve tried to italicize the first graf in my previous comment twice now, and each time it breaks the initial “em” tag. It would be nice to have a mode (like WordPress) in which one can actually edit the HTML.

    • #6
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:14 PM PDT
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  7. Instugator Thatcher

    &blockquote cite=”comment-1044349″>Rand Simberg: It’s more dangerous to climb Everest. It’s ridiculous to expect it to be safe to open the most harsh frontier ever.
    Depends on how you count them. The 1/10 statistic is Climbers Dead/Climbers. It is not Climbers dead/ Group Attempts – which is the only way to accurately measure the Space Shuttle in comparison to climbs of Everest.

    This is because while Climbers Dead/Climbers is the base statistic for Everest – each individual climber is responsible for their own safety. The Space Shuttle (within the accidents that there have been) cannot use the like statistic because they launch and return as a group and do not possess the individual capacity for their own safety.

    A better statistic would be Astronaut deaths / Shuttle attempts or 14/135. Which gives a result which is .1037 – which is no different than climbing Mt Everest at .1 when using the z-test for difference in proportion.

    • #7
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:23 PM PDT
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  8. Rand Simberg Inactive

    A better statistic would be Astronaut deaths / Shuttle attempts or 14/135.

    Nope. That number is a function of the crew size, which is independent of the safety of the vehicle. Your empirical chance of dying on a Shuttle flight was 2/135. Probability of loss of crew per flight was about 1.5%. Safer than an Everest climb. About the same as free diving.

    • #8
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:28 PM PDT
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  9. Instugator Thatcher

    &blockquote>Rand Simberg: A better statistic would be Astronaut deaths / Shuttle attempts or 14/135. Nope. That number is a function of the crew size, which is independent of the safety of the vehicle. Your empirical chance of dying on a Shuttle flight was 2/135. Probability of loss of crew per flight was about 1.5%. Safer than an Everest climb. About the same as free diving.

    If you want to make that comparison then you have to go with the Group Deaths / Groups (Everest) for which I am unable to find the number of group attempts of Everest nor the average size per group.

    In any event, your comparison is flawed as I am unaware of any occasions where Mt Everest has spontaneously killed everyone currently making the ascent / descent.

    • #9
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:42 PM PDT
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  10. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Rand;

    I suspect the you understand why NASA is obsessive about safety to the point of timidity is that every launch becomes a crap shoot as to whether you get to keep your manned space flight program, which after a failure every pundit will become a instant 20/20 hindsight speculator. NASA in the grand scheme of government spending is a luxury. We can spend upwards of a trillion annual on non means tested handouts, but spend 17 billion for a program that has had, and still has some technological rewards to our nation, well “If we can put a man on the moon surely we can blah blah blah with that money back here on earth”… Been there, seen it, non winnable argument. Great Nations fund space programs. Not sure we stand now.

    • #10
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:52 PM PDT
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  11. Instugator Thatcher

    Rand Simberg:
    Yes, he did say that. As I’ve said repeatedly, it was a stupid thing to say, that has nothing to do with what NASA is actually doing.

    You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means. 

    So now that NASA has gone from Muslim Outreach to preaching the advantages of Communism (or rather, income equality) are you willing to admit that NASA has gone beyond their mission?

    • #11
    • March 27, 2014, at 2:53 PM PDT
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  12. John Walker Contributor

    I think one of the most telling things in Mr Simberg’s book is how differently we treat the risks of astronauts and those who assume other voluntary risks such as over-wintering at the South Pole. As I noted in my review of Safe Is Not an Option posted here (but devoured by the Great 2.0 Migration Beast, and consequently linked to a copy on my site), when a Soyuz booster launching a Progress cargo ship failed in 2011, abandoning the ISS and the US$150 billion investment in it was seriously considered if it were not possible to restore the Soyuz to flight in order to launch crew lifeboats to the station.

    By comparison, around 45 people over-winter at the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, which has no lifeboat attached and from which the prospects of a rescue mission in case of fire or a medical emergency in winter is remote.

    Why are astronauts, who volunteer to assume the risks they take, unique national treasures?

    • #12
    • March 27, 2014, at 3:09 PM PDT
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  13. Rand Simberg Inactive

    If you want to make that comparison then you have to go with the Group Deaths / Groups (Everest) for which I am unable to find the number of group attempts of Everest nor the average size per group.

    No, I don’t. There is no such thing as “group deaths” when calculating probability of loss of crew. It’s a nonsensical term. Your chance of dying if you ride a Shuttle was about 1.5%. Your chance of dying climbing Everest is higher. The size of the crew is completely irrelevant. It seems like you’re arguing simply for the sake of arguing.

    • #13
    • March 27, 2014, at 3:11 PM PDT
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  14. Rand Simberg Inactive

    So now that NASA has gone from Muslim Outreach to preaching the advantages of Communism (or rather, income equality) are you willing to admit that NASA has gone beyond their mission?

    99.9% of NASA’s expenditures have absolutely nothing to do with either of those things. Once again, you demonstrate that you have no interest in a serious discussion of space policy.

    • #14
    • March 27, 2014, at 3:25 PM PDT
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  15. Rand Simberg Inactive

    John, just this morning on the Hill, when asked what he would do if the Russians cut off Soyuz flights to ISS, Bolden said he would abandon it. If he meant it, that would be insane, of course, but I’d like to think that he was just bluffing to get fools like Mo Brooks to finally properly fund Commercial Crew.

    • #15
    • March 27, 2014, at 3:28 PM PDT
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  16. Rand Simberg Inactive

    NASA in the grand scheme of government spending is a luxury.

    The point that I repeatedly make in the book (and elsewhere) is that our risk aversion in space is a reflection of the fact that we don’t consider it important enough to risk lives on. The NASA of today could never do Apollo 8. We did it then, because it was a Cold War, and Apollo was a battle in it. I just try to point out out every opportunity when Eddie Bernice Johnson or Chaka Fattah say that “safety is the highest priority” that they are really implying that actually accomplishing things in space is a lower one.

    • #16
    • March 27, 2014, at 3:41 PM PDT
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  17. Pilli Inactive

    Could it also be that spaceflight is equated with airline flight? When an airliner goes down, there is a huge investigation to find the cause so that “it never happens again.” Do you think there is a mental equation on the part of many Congresscritters of that sort?

    • #17
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:08 PM PDT
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  18. Instugator Thatcher

    Basic Math Rand. If you cite the statistic 1.5% you are performing the calculation of Shuttle Losses / Shuttle attempts. (2/135)

    As Shuttle Crews have always been some integer greater than or equal to 2 and never been equal to 1 then your chances of death are greater than 1.5%. (This is why you should use as your numerator the number of deaths). Assuming a normal distribution in the size of a crew, then you could use as a proxy [(2Crew losses)X (6.3Average crew size)]/Shuttle attempts

    Or (2*6.3)/135 = 9.3%

    If you want to have the likelihood of death then you have to use a measure that includes deaths. Deaths/ Mission-attempts becomes your death statistic. 

    Your insistence on the 1.5% number removes the concept of catastrophic failures. Since both losses were catastrophic in nature (loss with all hands) and there was no loss of life in individual accidents then your insistence on a greater denominator (number of participants) makes no sense.

    • #18
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:11 PM PDT
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  19. Instugator Thatcher

    So Rand, pretending your statistic IS accurate and taking into account your use of the Everest statistic – Are you suggesting that one should adopt the Everest metric as your acceptable level of risk?

    Do you suggest that adopting that level of risk is all that is necessary to have more people in space?

    • #19
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:15 PM PDT
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  20. Instugator Thatcher

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:
    As you know, Instugator, personal attacks violate the Code of Conduct. You can argue the issues without insulting the person with whom you disagree. Thank you.

     While I like to be called out as much as the next guy, I don’t recall your weighing in on the “No Rush, NASA is not a Muslim Outreach Program” or the personal attack thread it spawned “Obama Derangement Syndrome is just as bad as BDS” (Title approximated because it doesn’t seem to have successfully completed the 2.0 migration.)

    • #20
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:19 PM PDT
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  21. Rand Simberg Inactive

    By your logic, a 747 is five times less safe than a 737 because it carries five times more people to be killed.

    There is no single number for acceptable risk. It totally depends on the individual willing to accept it, and the purpose of the flight. If an astronaut is going out to save the planet from an asteroid, a fifty percent chance of death per astronaut would be fine, as long as a bunch of them are sent. In WW II bombing raids, a 4% crew loss was considered acceptable. Either space is important, or it is not.

    • #21
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:26 PM PDT
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  22. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Rand Simberg:
    Either space is important, or it is not.

    It is important, but not to a democracy that favors comforts and goodies and a cynically motivated political class that has no clue what they are looking at when they tour the facilities, but can see the value of buying votes via the selection process for missions that come back to there districts. NASA learned at the knee of the DoD folks on how to make program reach as many districts as possible. The President and those congress folks, which collectively decide the level of Space program that they want, also look at polls when making that bread and circus vs technology/developmental calculation. No contest. Man Space flight is going to become the province of the very wealth class that can afford the high risk/ reward gamble, or at least have the vision to ignore the perceived misallocation of resources.

    Pity, I really enjoyed the ride the last 40 years.

     

    • #22
    • March 27, 2014, at 4:51 PM PDT
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  23. Instugator Thatcher

    Rand Simberg: By your logic, a 747 is five times less safe than a 737 because it carries five times more people to be killed.

     Actually a 747 carries between 2.43 – 3.5 times as many people as a 737. There have been 46 complete losses of 747s with an average human toll of 62.16 per aircraft loss There have been 156 complete losses of 737s with an average human toll per loss of 27.5 The human loss per 747 as compared to 737s is a multiple of 2.25. Close to the size difference, huh? The problem with your math is that your units do not resolve to deaths per attempts but rather hull losses per attempts. You incorrectly use this as a proxy for death rate.

    This isn’t Rocket Science.

    • #23
    • March 27, 2014, at 7:06 PM PDT
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  24. Rand Simberg Inactive

     Actually a 747 carries between 2.43 – 3.5 times as many people as a 737.

    Oh.

    Well that completely changes my argument.

    #EyeRoll

    [Update late evening.]

    Just to be clear. “Deaths per flight attempts” is a very stupid and utterly meaningless metric, that no one in the real world has ever used to design a vehicle or base policy on.

    • #24
    • March 27, 2014, at 7:12 PM PDT
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  25. namlliT noD Member

    There are two very different situations to consider separately, right? There’s the stuff that hasn’t been done before, and the stuff that has.

    If you’re, uh, boldly going where no man has gone before, say the Apollo missions, the expectation of safety is pretty low.

    But if the ship was designed for regular trips up and back, and even called a “shuttle”, and non-astronauts are included in the mission, then the expected level of safety is much higher.

    • #25
    • March 27, 2014, at 11:32 PM PDT
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  26. Blue State Curmudgeon Inactive

    I agree with the premise of this post that we are far too obssessed with risk and safety, not only in NASA but in society as a whole. It’s not surprising where it comes from. We value individualism over the collective, as we should, but this has led to a risk/reward calculus that focuses far too much on the former with little or no consideration of the latter. This mentality extends to virtually every area of public policy from our aversion to military action to overly conservative speed limits to the unimaginable amount of money we spend on health care and defensive medicine. I believe that we should fully understand the risk/reward equation but that our risk aversion has gotten completely out of hand. I believe that Ben Franklin had it right when he said (and I paraphrase) that those who are willing to trade their freedom for more security deserve neither.

    • #26
    • March 28, 2014, at 6:06 AM PDT
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  27. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Rand Simberg:
    NASA in the grand scheme of government spending is a luxury.
    The point that I repeatedly make in the book (and elsewhere) is that our risk aversion in space is a reflection of the fact that we don’t consider it important enough to risk lives on. The NASA of today could never do Apollo 8. We did it then, because it was a Cold War, and Apollo was a battle in it. I just try to point out out every opportunity when Eddie Bernice Johnson or Chaka Fattah say that “safety is the highest priority” that they are really implying that actually accomplishing things in space is a lower one.

     Maybe a good analogy would be military aircraft, especially fighter, test pilots. I suspect the fatality rate is significant for them, but we consider the need for a robust air force sufficient reason to continue with their risks.

    • #27
    • March 28, 2014, at 7:17 AM PDT
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  28. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:
    As you know, Instugator, personal attacks violate the Code of Conduct. You can argue the issues without insulting the person with whom you disagree. Thank you.

     Oh, lighten up, will you. Mr. Simberg has given as good as he got.

    • #28
    • March 28, 2014, at 7:23 AM PDT
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  29. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    I haven’t read the book (sorry) though it seems very thought provoking, and impresses me to be wrapped around a clever insight. I guess I would be more interested in a thread (another if this is not the one) that amplifies on why we need much man presence in in the near space to begin with. Yes, in a billion years we may need to leave this planet, and it is possible we will run short of resources in a thousand or two, but I doubt it, as we always seem to find replacements.

    I say this as a rocket scientist of sorts who enjoys the problem sets created by these ventures, and yet I just don’t see the same gleam in the enterprise as others do.

    If we go to Mars and set up habitat there – well, first of all, it won’t be in my lifetime. What is the appeal of pursuing such a project? It won’t get us out of the solar system, we would need some kind of warp drive for that. There is the adventure of exploration, and the joy of discovery, but boy, these are such expensive expeditions. What is the cost to get a kg into LEO, maybe $5-10,000, and ten times that to get to the moon (~$50-100,000 to moon)?

    If we can get these cost way down, then I am in…otherwise I have to wonder if we shouldn’t just keep these activities on the low burner.

    • #29
    • March 28, 2014, at 7:42 AM PDT
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  30. Mark Wilson Member

    The argument on this thread about the proper way to accurately calculate the risk of death is a little off the point. Challenger and Columbia had two completely unrelated failure modes. Does that mean the probability of an o-ring failure is 1/135 and the probability of failure due to insulation-caused tile damage is also 1/135? Of course not. 

    Each accident happened because of the unfortunate intersection of several independent events along with poor communication and poor decisionmaking. How can you pretend to calculate a probability from that?

    Who knows what other failure modes were lurking in the background and never had a chance to materialize because of the small number of flights?

    • #30
    • March 28, 2014, at 10:52 AM PDT
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