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Publishing a book on our irrational approach to safety in human spaceflight. Read more

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This project was successfully funded on December 5, 2012.

Publishing a book on our irrational approach to safety in human spaceflight.

About this project

In a Kickstarter project I got funding for last summer, I was funded to write what I called at the time a "paper" on the topic of our irrational approach to safety in human spaceflight, that is a significant contributor to its high cost and our slow progress.  Well, the "paper" turned into at least a monograph, if not a book.  It's currently at 36,000 words (about sixty pages in standard Word format, but probably closer to a hundred after being reformatted into book form and adding illustrations), and essentially complete, except for illustrations, which are being worked.  The title is currently, "SAFE IS NOT AN OPTION: How Our Futile Obsession with Getting Everyone Back Alive is Killing the Space Program."

The purpose of this project is to publish the book, and get it looking fairly professional, which means adding illustrations, cover art, and having an editor look it over, plus layout, typeface selection, etc. This will involve both paying people who are a lot better at graphic design and style than me (i.e., almost anyone) and continuing to spend my own time on it. I'm also soliciting blurbs and forewords from various people, such as astronauts, Wayne Hale, and others.

Everyone who was promised an autographed copy of the output of the last project as a reward will get a signed bookplate if they want one, to affix to the book if they purchase one. All contributors to this project of five dollars or more will get an ebook, ten dollars or more will get a book, and those who contribute at the designated reward level will get a signed book plate (I'm not sure what the ultimate sales price of the book will be yet). Note that the purpose of this Kickstarter is not to offer good deals on the books -- it is entirely possible that I will sell them for less once it's published.  I don't really have a sense of what the revenue-optimizing price point is.  The idea is rather to provide an opportunity for those who want to see this happen to help make it happen and get some recognition for it if they wish. But I would also point out that a large number of book sales (e.g., in the thousands) would a) interest a major publisher into doing a second edition, that would get it into book stores (to the degree that model still makes sense) and b) encourage a major publisher to finally accept and give me an advance on my major space technology/policy book, that has been on the back burner for years, for lack of resources.  If the latter doesn't happen, that book being completed is obviously less likely.

My goal is to make it available in time for Christmas, for those who want to gift it, though as I discuss below, that could be a challenge, since I won't get funded until late December (at this point just a few days before), and will have to work on spec from now until then, without money to pay anyone else. So I don't want to promise that, but it will be done for sure by early February, because I am planning a press conference/symposium in DC in conjunction with the FAA Space Transportation Conference at that time, and I'll want to have books available.  Funds raised beyond the goal will go toward publicizing the book, including free copies to media reviewers and policy makers in DC.

For those who want more detail on the contents of the book, here is the executive summary:

The history of exploration of new lands, science and technologies has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Similarly, the history of settlement of new territory is a bloody one, with great risk to the settlers. Had they not taken those risks, we might still be in the trees in Africa, and unable to write books like this on computers. 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 of the humans carrying them out.

For decades since the end of Apollo, human spaceflight has been very expensive (about a billion dollars per ticket) 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, whether driven by a degenerated American culture itself, or grandstanding politicians. From the Space Shuttle, to the International Space Station, the new commercial crew program to deliver astronauts to it, and the regulatory approach for commercial spaceflight providers, our approach to safety has been fundamentally irrational, expensive and even dangerous, while generating minimal accomplishment for maximal cost.

The implicit assignment of an infinite value to the life of a space farer, as has been the apparent and perhaps-unique default for decades, will inevitably result in a gross misallocation of resources and, paradoxically, actually increase the individual risk of death or injury. It is also a signal, regardless of how much money we spend on them, of how utterly unimportant and valueless we as a society believe that space accomplishments are, that we are unwilling to risk human life on them, compared to any other human endeavor such as commerce, mining, farming, construction, transport or even adventure seeking. If we are to open up space to humanity, this attitude must change.

Our goal must be not to maximize safety, but rather to maximize space activity, and to accept and recognize that in doing so it is inevitable that human lives will be lost, as is the case in any other worthwhile (and even worthless) human activity. We must be more accepting of the possibility that people will be injured or killed in space, whether for government missions, or for private endeavors, and be much bolder in our goals. This is not to encourage recklessness, but to simply be more rational in our approach.
With regard to commercial space, this implies that the Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration should delay, perhaps indefinitely, any attempt to regulate the commercial spaceflight industry with regard to passenger safety, and allow lessons to be learned over time that can be incorporated in such regulations when it becomes appropriate to introduce them. When it does so, the agency must assign a value to the life of a spaceflight participant, so that it can properly determine whether or not a proposed rule is cost effective. It must also allow individuals to participate on an informed basis, regardless of risk level.

Similarly, for NASA, the implications of this are that the agency must stop using the words “safe” and “unsafe” as though they are binary conditions rather than a continuum, that it must assign a value to the life of an astronaut (perhaps as a function of the mission to be performed) so that it can rationally allocate the resources necessary to properly and reasonably minimize the probability of losing it. Finally, it should abandon the useless concept of "human rating."

For Congress, it means that we have to, for the first time in decades, have a serious discussion about what we are trying to accomplish in space with regard to human spaceflight, and what we’re willing to spend, both in taxpayer dollars and human life, to do so. And for the media, it means that any time a Congressperson says that “safety is paramount,” it should be reported what a completely irrational and counterproductive statement this is if we are to accomplish our national space goals.

And here is the preface:

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 for various evolutionary psychological reasons. 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 in that arena, we’ve done an absolutely terrible job of creating such a balance. Since the end of Apollo, as a nation, we have taken an irrational policy approach to spaceflight safety. For years, the author has been pointing out our irrationality in this regard, which not only misallocates resources, but keeps actual human spaceflight both very expensive, and very rare. A recent article by space engineer Robert Zubrin in Reason magazine makes a similar point.

No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and loss of human life, and the space frontier will be no different, particular considering the harshness and hazards of it. That we spend untold billions in a futile attempt to prevent such risk is both a barrier to opening it, 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 or Australia or 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. This book will provide a brief history of that, from the great age of exploration, to the settlement of the Americas, and the development of science and transportation technology, with an emphasis on its hazards to human life. 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 Shuttle, 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.

I hope that you will find this project worthy of funding, and thank you in advance for your contributions.

Risks and challenges

Since the book is already essentially written, the biggest challenges are the final ones -- developing cover art, deciding on design (typeface, font, page layout) and finding people to blurb and foreword. Making this happen during holiday season may be particularly challenging, given that I have only a month or so, if the book is to be ready for Christmas. I will attempt to do so, though I'm not sure how great it would be as a Christmas gift, except for space policy and history geeks. It will definitely be done by February.

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