Publishing a book on our irrational approach to safety in human spaceflight. Read more
This project was successfully funded on December 5, 2012.
Thanks For The Continuing Support
We're now almost a thousand dollars over the goal, with a couple days to go. I need to raise quite a bit more than that if I'm going to do the symposium and free book distribution to policy makers, so please continue to publicize it, like it on FB, tweet about it, etc. As a motivation, here another teaser, from the chapter on commercial space regulation:
Mount Everest is littered with the bodies of those who attempted to conquer it (in some years about 10% of those climbing it don’t return, though the average rate has been reduced to about 2% in more recent times, not counting support teams). In fact, in that regard it’s worth noting that NASA Shuttle astronaut Scott Parazynski made two attempts, the second one successful, but he didn’t do it until the year after he retired from NASA, and both attempts were much more hazardous than any of his five Shuttle flights, even including his dangerous four EVAs on STS-120. As space entrepreneur Jim Bennett noted in comments at my blog a few months ago, the most dangerous way to get to 29,000 feet altitude is to walk, but the government doesn’t involve itself in regulating it.
But perhaps the best example is the event of October 14th of 2012, as this work was on the verge of publication. In eastern New Mexico, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner put on a pressure suit and climbed into the gondola of a balloon of more modern materials and much larger than the one used by Joe Kittinger over half a century before, and ascended to a record altitude of 24 miles (128,000 feet), to beat that decades-old mark. As he passed up through the troposphere, the face mask of his helmet started to fog up from the cold, due to a lack of sufficient power to heat it. Had it continued, he would have had to jump blind, and rely on his radio for someone to tell him when to open his chute, because he wouldn’t have been able to see his altimeter. But they switched to another power source, and the frost cleared. When he jumped, after a couple minutes of free fall in which he went supersonic and beat Kittinger’s speed record, he went into an uncontrolled tumble for several seconds, that he later related “terrified” him. But he stabilized himself, his drogue deployed, and he came in for a landing with his modern parafoil that allowed him to take four short steps into the record books.
The FAA was obviously involved with, and concerned about this flight. They had to provide clear air space for the balloon to ascend and for the jumper and gondola to fall, and issue a notice to airmen (NOTAM) to ensure that no uninvolved person on the ground or in the air was injured or killed, or property damaged. But just as FAA-AST has no involvement with mission success for a satellite launch in its licensing process, the aviation branches of the FAA had no involvement with the safety of Baumgartner, because that was not their responsibility (skydiving is a special category, even skydiving from the edge of space).
Baumgartner’s jump was just a beginning of a possible new extreme sport, which will not just provide thrills and entertainment (as the barnstormers once did) but also push the technology of pressure suits and wing suits, ultimately perhaps with jumps all the way from orbit. This will contribute to future safety of space venturers by teaching us how to survive space disasters, and provide better equipment for them. The next step will be space diving, with dives all the way from a hundred kilometers altitude, commonly recognized as the beginning of space. Armadillo has stated that this is one of the potential markets for their vertical ascent/descent vehicles, which they’ve characterized as an “elevator to space” (though not orbit, at least not yet).
If the aviation FAA (which is focused on safety these days) doesn’t involve itself with the well being of someone jumping from a balloon, why should FAA-AST do so with someone jumping from a rocket? And if they don’t, why should they involve themselves with the safety of anyone riding a rocket, at this point? In an informed-consent regime (which is the current one), what is important is not the level of safety per se, but how well informed a participant is of just how safe (or unsafe) it is. It is then the individual’s responsibility to accept that risk or not to accomplish their goals. Like regulations demanding vehicles of a specific design type, a “one-size-fits all” safety regime would not just stifle innovation, but the freedom of people to hazard their own lives in the pursuit of their dreams. That was a founding principle of America, another frontier. In that sense, to impose such a regulatory regime on the industry today would be in fact un-American.