It’s Time to Shatter the Illusion of “Safety” in Spaceflight.

While there are many issues that occupy my thoughts about commercial space, one that I find particularly tedious is the issue of safety. A colleague of mine is noted for his views on “safety” and wrote a book, which I recommend you read regardless of your views on the issue, but my ire is directed more at the paradigm of “safety” as opposed to reducing risk. Politics, the FAA and the industry are focused on “safety”, which is an illusion, and more so the illusion you can make an activity like spaceflight “more safe”. This presupposes there are varying degrees of safety when safety is quantified in that either it’s safe or it’s not. There are no varying degrees of safety, but rather safety” has become a political idiom from which regulation is all too often created that misses the mark and destroys rather than facilitates.

A better approach is the view spaceflight commercial or otherwise as an activity that is inherently laden with risk. From that perspective, policy can be developed to not make spaceflight “more safe” but rather reduce the risk while acknowledging it will never be eliminated because of the nature of spaceflight and its instrumentalities.  Indeed, in our pursuit of making spaceflight “more safe” we’ve made it less safe because we ignore the real risk because it’s veiled under the illusion of safety. In other words, by striving to make a fundamentally unsafe activity safe we ignore the real risks and thus magnify them.

I had the pleasure to attend a symposium in D.C. at the National Press Club on September 15th sponsored by the University of Nebraska. My distinguished colleague, Marcia Smith, moderated a panel on spaceflight that included several representatives of industry and notably the FAA. When the topic of “safety” came up I challenged the panel the true archetype should not be making the industry “safe” but rather look at it from the perspective of admitting this is always going to be a risky business no matter how much we try to make it “safe” and to mitigate those risks as much as practicable. To say the least, the responses from the panel were varied and interesting, including the response of the FAA representative.

Admittedly, you can say this a lawyer’s perspective, and it is (a D.C. lawyer attending even came up and shook my hand during a break and commended my challenge to the panel noting “that’s a lawyer!” Regardless, changing the perspective of spaceflight and getting away from the illusion of safety to embrace that spaceflight is a risky endeavor and always will be no matter how much we try to make it “safe” is paramount.

 

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2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Shatter the Illusion of “Safety” in Spaceflight.

  1. The statement, “There are no varying degrees of safety” is untrue. Design margin is a safety metric. A design with adequate design margin can be considered safe, while one with no margin or negative margin should be considered unsafe. Redundancy is another method of providing safety. A spacecraft with multiple subsystems to provide a function is more safe than one with a single system that would result in mission failure if it broke.

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  2. Make, I agree. This was the theme of one of my SCITECH papers in 1994, debris remediation to reduce risk. I will send a copy. Please consider a joint paper for the IISL part of the next IAC. I am a member of IISL and a Fellow of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety!

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