I spent the weekend of August 23, 2003 aboard the International Space Station reading and digesting the official report on the destruction of another spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was to have been my ride to orbit for this flight. Instead, two weeks following the loss of Columbia, I was dispatched to Russia to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, to spend six months on the station while we waited to see if the shuttle would fly again. The striking thing about the report was not the physical cause of the accident (foam loss striking the leading edge of the wing), but rather the inclusion of the lack of an overarching goal for the space program as a contributing cause. They could not have been more correct.
For years, I and other astronauts would cringe when statements were made that “safety is our number one priority.” If that were really the case, then we should have given up and never flown, since sitting home on our couches would clearly be safer. The amount of risk one should take (or the amount for which safety is important), depends entirely on the rewards to be gained by undertaking the mission. Without a discussion of what we are trying to accomplish, we have no way to judge the risks we should be prepared to assume.
This book – Safe is Not an Option – brings this point home clearly. It not only provides the historical context of the types of risks people have assumed on other endeavors, but how this mindset of safety above all else is the end result of having no clear mission or purpose. Flying into space on current launch vehicles is not without risk, and we in the astronaut corps understood that. Obviously we were concerned with safety, which to us meant not doing something stupid. But when the risks are understood and reasonable steps have been taken to control those risks (reasonable as defined by the mission we are trying to accomplish), then it is time to light the rockets and go. That is what we were paid to do. Those who confuse safety as being our main goal, as opposed to accomplishing the mission, are not doing us any favors.
Rand Simberg has written a book that needed to be written, and I commend him for taking on this subject. The book is not just informative and thought provoking, but even fun to read. It is aimed at the layperson, but at the same time has plenty of material for experts, and it doesn’t sacrifice either technical or historical accuracy for simplicity. Policy makers, engineers, and managers who care about the development of space should read it and think about what “safety” really means. It will be well worth their while.
Ed Lu – Former Space Shuttle, Soyuz and International Space Station Astronaut, and Chief Executive Officer of the B612 Foundation