Throughout history, humans have always had to balance risk against reward, but for evolutionary reasons, we don’t always do a good job of it in modern (i.e., high-technology) times, partially because statistics aren’t particularly intuitive.
One of the reasons that we’ve made relatively little progress in human spaceflight over the past half century — despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on it — is that we’ve done an absolutely terrible job of establishing an appropriate risk-reward balance. Since the end of Apollo, as a nation, we have taken an irrational approach to spaceflight-safety policy. For years the author has pointed out this irrationality, which not only misallocates resources, but keeps actual human spaceflight both very expensive and very rare. pointing out our irrationality in this regard, which not only misallocates resources, but keeps actual human spaceflight both very expensive, and very rare. Space engineer Robert Zubrin made a similar point in a 2012 Reason magazine article.
No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and loss of human life and the space frontier is no different. That we spend untold billions of dollars in a futile attempt to prevent loss of life is both a barrier to opening the space frontier, and a testament to the lack of national importance of doing so. Historically, had we taken the same attitude toward safety in expanding our ecological range as we have in space, humanity would never have left Africa for Europe and Asia, colonized the Arctic, opened up the Americas, Australia, the south Pacific islands, or settled the American West. We would not have made great scientific discoveries, developed steam engines, or steam ships, or rail, or automobiles, or aircraft. In fact, we would still be sitting in the trees, gazing out at the savanna and wondering what it might have in for us.
To get some perspective and context, and recognize the absurdity of current attitudes and policies toward space activities, it is useful to look at the risk-versus-reward levels of other human activities, both historical and current, whether for exploration, science, frontier settlement, or even recreation. With an emphasis on hazards to human life, this book will provide a brief history of risk versus reward from the great Age of Exploration, to the settlement of the Americas and the development of science and transportation technology. It will then transition to a history of the early space age, and how it evolved to its current state, with case studies of Apollo, the Space Shuttle, Constellation, the International Space Station, the Commercial Crew program, and various commercial space-transportation efforts.
The book concludes with policy recommendations going forward to provide much more, and more affordable human spaceflight activities, not to just low earth orbit, but far beyond into cis-lunar space and the solar system, finally fulfilling the promise of the past half century that has always seemed to recede into the future.
A certain amount of knowledge of the history of the human spaceflight program, and particularly the history of the past decade or so, is assumed on the part of the reader in the text of the book. But for those unfamiliar with it, or who may be confused by much of the confusing or misleading reporting and commentary on it, resources are included that provide background and definitions:
Appendix A is a sort-of glossary of the various manned American programs from 1981 to 2013, describing what things, like the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), and Constellation, are or were, and what they aren’t or weren’t.
Appendix B provides a detailed description and critique of the Space Launch System (SLS). For reasons that will become clear upon reading, it is titled, “The ‘Senate’ Launch System.”
Acronyms used in the text are usually defined where they first appear. For reference purposes, their definitions can be found in the “Acronym” section.
It should be noted that this book does not attempt to convince the reader that developing and settling space is important. It is assumed that readers would not have bothered to pick up, let alone crack and read the work, if they didn’t already believe that. The audience of the book is not those who don’t care about space, but rather those who do, or at least think they do (as evidenced by, for example, support of expensive NASA human spaceflight programs). The purpose is not to argue for the worth of such activities per se (that would be the subject of a different book). Rather, it is to expose the inconsistency in thinking that such endeavors are worth the expenditure of vast amounts of our national treasure, yet not also worth the risk of the loss of life.
Regardless of how much we expend to protect human life, when people fly in rockets loaded with tons of explosive propellants, and venture out into hazardous environments—with hard vacuum, high radiation levels, toxic soil, and high-velocity impacts that can easily kill in an instant—we should expect that there will be occasional loss of life, and accept it. On the menu of “out there” is discovery, adventure, awe, expanding life beyond the biosphere in which it evolved, technological advancement, the generation of wealth, and liberty. But on that menu, “safe” is not one of the options. Hence the title of this book, which shouldn’t be taken to mean that safety is not desirable, or that we shouldn’t do our best in our designs and operations to minimize casualties, within reason. Rather, it means that in opening up a new home for humanity, absolute safety is ultimately unavailable.
We live with the risk of injury or death in every other human endeavor, from mountain climbing to skydiving, from driving to flying. But for some reason, space-related activities are held to a different standard. Why is it that we see the death of test pilots as an unfortunate consequence of their job, but not so for astronauts? The intent of this book is to spark the needed national discussion on this topic to bring balance in terms of risk and reward and embolden us to once again move forward on the high frontier.