Ed Driscoll

Interview: Rand Simberg Explains Why Safe Is Not An Option

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Rand Simberg, frequent contributor to PJ Media.com and a former project manager at Rockwell International Corporation, stops by today to discuss his recent book, Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space.

As Rand explains, the culture of NASA is much more sclerotic than its 1960s-vintage “Right Stuff” era, in which the feats that put Man on the Moon in the space of a decade could never be repeated today. These days, as Rand notes, instead of treating astronauts like the military test pilots being assigned to orbit the earth, NASA considers them as being akin to “national treasures,” as science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle once wrote.

Will commercial manned spaceflight pick up where NASA has left off? In contrast to moribund NASA, Simberg describes commercial spaceflight as “fairly vibrant.” And considering the saber rattling going on from Russia, who are threatening to cut off access to the International Space Station via their ancient Soyuz rockets, that’s a good thing.

In the meantime, as Rand notes at his book’s Website, “Safety Cannot Be The Highest Priority In NASA Spaceflight,” if you agree, visit his site and sign his petition “to send Congress a message and try to fix the NASA authorization bill.”

But first, check out our 11 minute interview, during which Rand will discuss:

● His forecast for the next decade of human spaceflight, from both the private and government sectors.

● The final post-mortem on the now-retired Space Shuttle.

● Is NASA making a mistake with its proposed successor?

● When did NASA win the Space Race? (Hint, it wasn’t Apollo 11.)

● Do today’s NASA staffers see the agency as being superior to current private space efforts?

● What’s going on with Michael Mann’s lawsuit against him?

● How will the public and U.S. government react when the first person is killed during a commercial spaceflight?

And much more. Click here to listen:

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(11 minutes, 21 seconds long; 10.4 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 3.25 MB lo-fi edition.)

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

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This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with Rand Simberg, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, frequent contributor to PJ Media.com, a former project manager at Rockwell International Corporation, and the author of the recent book, Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space. It’s published by Interglobal Media and available from Amazon.com. And Rand, thanks for stopping by today.

Rand, the culture of NASA has changed dramatically since the days of the Right Stuff and the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely. How did the culture of NASA become so risk-averse?

MR. SIMBERG:  Because we quit doing things that were important.  That’s my thesis, anyway.

During the Apollo and the Cold War, it was a cold war.  It was a battle in the Cold War, which was, you know, many people viewed as an existential war.  And so it really was actually important to beat the Russians to the moon ‑‑ beat the Soviets, I should say, to the moon.

And they were willing to risk human life to get it.  People don’t necessarily realize this, but you know, when we won ‑‑ the say we won the Cold War was not when we landed on the moon, it was with Apollo 8.  Because that’s ‑‑ that’s when the Soviets threw in the towel, and they quit racing even though they pretended to for another few years.  Because then, they knew at that point that they weren’t going to be able to beat us, so then they just pretended they’d never been racing.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And Apollo 8 was the first manned mission that orbited the moon, although it lacked a lunar lander.

MR. SIMBERG:  Right.  It was the first mission to the moon or that sent astronauts to the vicinity of the moon.  And they ‑‑ then they did that on the very first flight of a Saturn V, after its first test flight had been a total, utter disaster.  I mean, there were engines that had gone out in multiple stages and there was structural damage from, vehicle vibration.  And von Braun’s team kind of went to work and patched it up and they said okay, well, we think we’re ready to fly again, and they ‑‑ and they flew around the moon on the very next flight.

Today’s NASA could never, ever do that, because there’s nothing that we’re doing in space that’s deemed to be that important.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Does that explain why, as John Walker asks in his review of your book at Ricochet.com , how we went from viewing astronauts as test pilots going into orbit, to these days, being akin to “national treasures,” as science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle dubbed them in 1992?

MR. SIMBERG:  Yes, in fact that’s a quote from the book.  I point that out when Jerry did say that, they’re not national heroes anymore, they’re national treasures, far too risky to be expended on something as risky as space flight.

MR. DRISCOLL:  What priority does NASA have in the Obama administration?

MR. SIMBERG:  Very low.  Not ‑‑ but know, that’s not unique in the Obama administration.  The last time NASA had really high priority was probably in the ’60s.  Even Reagan didn’t have ‑‑ make it a high priority.  He was more interested in the SDI.

But Reagan did do is at least start the commercial space industry off with the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984.

But typically, NASA is never a priority, politically.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well, in contrast ‑‑ and I know we could spend the whole interview on this topic alone ‑‑ where does commercial manned space flight effort stand?

MR. SIMBERG:  It’s actually fairly vibrant.  If you look at what ‑‑ at least what SpaceX is doing, and you know, Elon Musk’s company.  It’s been being held back a little bit by these safety issues.  Because one of the things they’re doing is they have this commercial crew where they’re trying to replace the Russians.  And I’ve actually been ranting quite a bit about that in the last few weeks, because now that everybody’s paying attention and realizing that ‑‑ if they didn’t realize before how dependent we are on the Russians, not just for engines, for our primary launcher, for military satellites, but also, to get to and from the International Space Station.

And I had a piece at USA Today on Friday saying, you know, the reason we’re dependent on the Russians is because we have this obsession with safety.  I just followed that up today with a fairly long post at the Corner where I linked to, and then expanded on it with other more recent events.  It’s actually a fairly fast-moving subject in terms of news with, you know, the Russians threatening to end space station after 2020, when the partners ‑‑ or at least the U.S. says we’d like to go to at least till 2024.  And Rogozin, who is the Deputy Prime Minister in Russia, and is responsible for space flight, made a threat a couple weeks ago saying, hey, maybe NASA, you ought to think about getting a trampoline to get to ISS.

MR. DRISCOLL:  NASA is obviously still struggling to do determine what it wants to do in space, what it can do in space, now that the Shuttle is retired.

I remember after the Challenger explosion in 1986, Arthur C. Clarke dubbed the Space Shuttle the DC 1 and ½ of space; compromised beyond belief, it never did live up to the legacy of the classic DC-3 cargo plane of World War II. Now that it’s retired, what is the final post-mortem on the Space Shuttle?

MR. SIMBERG:  That it was a noble idea, poorly executed.  But in another sense, it was actually a terrible idea, in the sense that the idea was that [the Shuttle] would be the single way for the nation to get everything into space.  And that was always sort of crazy.

And the problem is that there’s still a lot of people that want to repeat that error.  And the Space Launch System is an excellent example of it. I don’t know how familiar your listeners are with that, but it’s the new heavy-lift system that some people think we can’t get to other planets without.  I disagree with that.

But that’s the excuse for it.  It’s kind of a job program to keep whatever’s left of the shuttle workforce employed.

But they claim that we need this launch vehicle that throws 130 tons to orbit in order to go beyond Earth’s orbit, and yet they don’t think we need a backup to it.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I doubt anyone working for Amtrak, in their heart of hearts, thinks of that Federally-owned railroad as being superior to say, the Union Pacific or the Norfolk Southern railroads. NASA has a less-than-stellar track record, but do they see themselves as superior or a sort of regulatory authority over and above private efforts designed to achieve manned commercial spaceflight?

MR. SIMBERG:  When you say “they” and “NASA,” you know, NASA’s a big agency with lots of people working for it.

I don’t think very many people see themselves as being the regulatory authority.  They certainly are not from a statutory standpoint.  The FAA regulates that, not NASA.

But I do think that there are still a lot of people who think that they have the Right Stuff, at the Agency, despite history and reality.  But I can’t speak for everybody at the Agency.

I can say that my USA Today piece on Friday got a very warm response from a fairly high level NASA official, and I can’t say any  more than that.  But he thought it was right on.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rand, I recently interviewed Mark Steyn, and I’d be remiss without asking you as well, what’s going on with Michael Mann’s lawsuit?

MR. SIMBERG:  Basically what we’re appealing the initial failure to dismiss on the basis of what’s called an anti-SLAPP law, that DC has passed.  And without getting deep in to the legal details, first we were trying to figure out, you know ‑‑ we’re trying to decide whether or not the Appellate Court has to decide whether or not we even have a right to immediately appeal.

So they recently ruled that they’re going to rule on that.  I think that’s a good way of explaining it.  But it’s a very abstruse legal situation that only lawyers understand and not all of them.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And Rand, last question: in the 1960s, America went from an embryonic government space program barely capable of manned sub-orbital flights, to landing men on the moon. What is your forecast for the next decade of human spaceflight, from both the private and government sectors?

MR. SIMBERG:  I’d say not much from the government sector, unless there’s a dramatic change in attitude on the Hill.  But I think there’s going to be a lot going on privately.  SpaceX is going to be flying the Dragon.  Somebody ‑‑ whether it’s for NASA or private people, Bigelow Aerospace, is just waiting for a ride or two before they’ll put up their own private space facilities and start leasing them out.

And Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, his goal is to colonize Mars.  You know, it’s funny.  General Shelton said a few weeks ago, I think he’s the head of Space Command, anyway he’s fairly high up in the military space program, and he said, you know, I never used to pay much attention to that guy when he said he’d do stuff, and now when he says he does ‑‑ going to do something, I believe him.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rand, I should have asked you, and I do want to ask you as a follow-up, how will people react, what happens when the inevitable occurs, and the first person is killed, whether he or she is a pilot or passenger, during a commercial spaceflight?

MR. SIMBERG:  I think the same thing that happens when a pilot or civilian is killed in an airplane or when someone’s killed climbing Mt. Everest, or when someone’s killed free diving.  I don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal as everybody seems to think it is.

It will partly depend on how they’re killed, you know, was it something stupid, or something that couldn’t have been anticipated.  I think that’ll make a difference.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been talking today with Rand Simberg  about his new book, Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space. It’s published by Interglobal Media and available from Amazon.com. And Rand, thanks once again for stopping by PJ Media.com today.

MR. SIMBERG:  Thank you, Ed.

(End of recording. For our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.