That ill-fated dive of the Titan submersible and loss of its deep ocean exploring occupants has sparked conversation and debate in the world of public space travel.
There are similarities between the Titan submersible and space tourism, some of which offer lessons learned as access to commercial suborbital and orbital spaceflight continues to expand.
George Nield has taken it to the limit … of Earth's atmosphere. He flew onboard Blue Origin's suborbital New Shepard rocket on March 31, 2022. He is president of Commercial Space Technologies and previously served as associate administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
"As I reflect on the tragic loss of life that took place as a result of the implosion of the submersible attempting to visit the wreckage of the Titanic, I see both similarities and differences between traveling to the bottom of the ocean and riding a rocket to the edge of space," Nield told Space.com.
Those similarities include:
- Both experiences take place in harsh and unforgiving environments
- Both experiences involve a significant level of risk
- Only a relatively small number of people have ever had either experience
- The cost to buy a ticket for either experience is rather high
Nield suggested that, perhaps, the most significant difference between the two excursions is that for submersibles, there is a comprehensive set of industry standards. "However, certification isn't mandatory," he said.
For commercial human spaceflight, Nield said, there's need for an updated regulatory framework for commercial human spaceflight. Launches are conducted under an "informed consent regime," he said, where companies must thoroughly brief their customers on all of the anticipated risks, and then have them sign a document stating that they understand and accept those risks.
Meanwhile, Nield pointed out that the FAA is currently under a moratorium, or "learning period," that is scheduled to expire in October 2023 (unless extended by Congress). It prohibits issuing regulations that are intended to protect the safety of crew or spaceflight participants.
There has been some initial work to develop voluntary industry consensus standards, Nield said, such as the effort being led by American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International, one of the world's largest international standards developing organizations.
Rushed regulations are bad regulations
Most of the standards that have been published to date, Nield continued, have to do with topics like terminology or propellant stowage rather than being focused on human spaceflight safety.
"As a result, this may be an appropriate time for those of us in the aerospace community to ask ourselves whether we are fully prepared for what might happen after the next human spaceflight accident," Nield said. "We know that we will have spaceflight accidents in the future just like we do for every mode of transportation, including cars, trains, planes and boats."
Nield fears that after a high-profile human spaceflight accident, we may see a significant outcry from the public, the media, Congress or the White House, with people asking, "How could the government have allowed this to happen?" That would be followed by the FAA being directed to immediately put out regulations that would prevent such an occurrence from ever taking place again.
"Unfortunately, my experience has been that rushed regulations are bad regulations," said Nield.
Light-touch government oversight
What is needed is an updated commercial human spaceflight regulatory framework.
Such a framework, Nield observed, may not even require the addition of any new regulations. It will be important to retain the existing "informed consent" regime, but the new framework could potentially include, by reference, a comprehensive set of FAA-approved, voluntary industry consensus standards. Companies could then either demonstrate their compliance with those standards, he said, or provide the appropriate data and rationale showing how an alternative approach would have an equivalent level of safety.
"If the moratorium is allowed to expire, industry may decide that it would be better for the private sector to have a system with light-touch government oversight and common-sense industry standards, than one in which the government attempts to come up with prescriptive design requirements on its own," Nield said. "That could turn out to be just the incentive needed to enable commercial human spaceflight to thrive while continuously improving its safety."
Playground for the rich
The tragic OceanGate accident occurred at a time when there is a high degree of public criticism surrounding how the wealthy spend their money on what are considered frivolous activities, said Alan Ladwig, author of "See You In Orbit? — Our Dream Of Spaceflight" (To Orbit Productions, LLC, October 2019).
Even during the recovery phase of the submersible, Ladwig said, there were many comparisons to space tourism as just another playground for the rich. Furthermore, as it became known that one of those that perished with his other submersible crewmembers, Hamish Harding, had previously flown with Blue Origin, the comparisons increased, he added.
"The hostility that appeared toward the doomed passengers on OceanGate was troubling. Even before the capsule was recovered and the families had a chance to mourn, many social media posts bordered on the ghoulish in their posts about the fate of the deceased," Ladwig said. "There was a disturbing 'served them right' attitude in the comments."
Ladwig said that mixed within the comparisons were concerns about an "insubstantial base" of testing and government oversight or regulations for new technologies that are incorporated into operational systems.
"Of course, there is much debate on what constitutes the correct time and amount of testing before new technologies are incorporated into operational systems," said Ladwig.
The providers of submersibles and suborbital tourism believe it is important to push boundaries to advance technologies and new capabilities, said Ladwig. In the case of space tourism, the FAA has given the industry latitude to gain operational experience before promulgating regulations that might hinder innovation or technical advances, he pointed out.
"The Titan accident is already being cited as justification to take a closer look at regulations for space tourism. Even before the accident, the FAA announced that its Office of Commercial Space Transportation plans to publish updated guidance for human space travel. The FAA and commercial providers have been working closely together on what the new guidance might look like," Ladwig said.
Looking ahead, Ladwig said he wonders how the public will react if a space tourism mission meets a disastrous fate. With sponsorships, lotteries, and government grants, there are emerging opportunities for non-wealthy individuals to participate in suborbital flights and the percentage of people of more modest means will increase.
"Will there be similar hostility toward passengers, or is the loathing reserved for the super-rich? It might also depend on who are among the passengers," Ladwig said. "If a celebrity augurs in on a flight, will it have a bigger impact than if a handful of researchers were to perish?"
The catastrophic loss of the Titan submersible and its occupants was a tragedy, snuffing out the lives of all five passengers that were onboard. Many are debating whether the submersible's implosion could have been avoided, and now, OceanGate has suspended all exploration and commercial operations.
Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and author of "Public Relations for Dummies," has looked into extreme tourism and the world's ultra-wealthy.
"As extreme tourism further rises in popularity, there are lessons others can learn from a crisis communications standpoint to avoid the same public relations disaster that OceanGate is facing," said Yaverbaum.
Clear, concise messaging
Billionaires such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic flights of SpaceShipTwo and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin are both funding their own suborbital rocket projects.
"For many who are ultra-wealthy, space is becoming the next luxury travel destination, no matter the cost or safety concerns. Yet, even billionaires like Bezos are subject to the court of public opinion and must have a plan in place for a number of crises that could arise," Yaverbaum told Space.com.
To start, there is absolutely an unavoidable reputation issue that surrounds these types of ventures, Yaverbaum said, particularly those created by and aimed at the ultra wealthy that companies in this space must be aware of.
Namely, the negative perception of high-cost luxury travel that is only accessible to the wealthy, Yaverbaum noted, especially in light of rising income inequality and costly crises here on Earth (e.g., poverty, climate change, water crises and air pollution, etc.) that billionaires could affect real change on.
"This dynamic is precisely why a significant portion of the public response to the loss of the Titan could best be characterized as indifference," Yaverbaum explained. Hubris and vanity are criticisms that come up a lot, he said.
"Extreme tourism companies should be prepared to confront that perception and steer the narrative toward, for example, the scientific benefits of investing in continued space exploration," Yaverbaum said. "Beyond that, companies in emerging tourism markets must ensure they have clear and concise messaging involved as it applies to safety."
If people, including Branson and Bezos, are getting on a rocket headed for outer space, they should have protocols and measures in place to ensure traveler wellbeing, Yaverbaum advised. "And if you're creating messaging around safety measures, make sure they're not fabricated and can be backed up if necessary."
It's also critical for any company or public figure to plan for a crisis well before the issue arises, said Yaverbaum. This especially holds true for extreme tourism, he said, as a number of life or death crisis scenarios could arise in an instant.
"It's mission critical to have a plan in place ahead of time and be able to act as quickly and efficiently as possible. It didn't seem like this was the case for OceanGate, as the only statement the company released was after they confirmed the submersible imploded," observed Yaverbaum.
In this case, OceanGate didn't seem to have a crisis plan.
"If they did have a plan and it was to stay quiet, that strategy didn't serve them given the slew of negative headlines and press coverage," Yaverbaum said.
"Again, it doesn't matter how much money you have or if you're the most famous person in the world. Strategizing for a crisis should never come down to the final hours where you're scrambling before a story goes live."
Yaverbaum said that, as space tourism continues to grow in popularity among the ultra wealthy, entities within the sector should begin developing in-depth crisis plans for any and all emergency scenarios. This includes accountability.
"OceanGate never apologized for what happened, which is already having permanent consequences for the brand. There's no way to predict what will happen when it comes to billionaires wanting to travel the depths of space," said Yaverbaum.
However, there are ways to prevent potential damage, and to be prepared in any and all potential crisis situations.
"One thing the extreme tourism sphere can learn from OceanGate, if nothing else, is to be prepared, and to own up to any wrongdoing if the worst were to happen," Yaverbaum concluded.