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Blue Origin astronauts
The loss of a submersible with five people on board has drawn parallels to commercial spaceflight and the risks people flying on such vehicles face. (credit: Blue Origin)

Should the loss of the Titan submersible impact space tourism?

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With the recent loss of the Titan submersible on a voyage to visit the Titanic, voices have been raised suggesting that the nascent space tourism industry requires immediate regulation. Before jumping on this bandwagon, let’s take a minute to compare the space tourist “industry” with the usage of submersibles and submarines for tourist voyages.

Unlike every submarine or submersible ever built, it was impossible to inspect the vehicle after each flight for wear and tear, with the result that by normal transportation standards rockets remained relatively unreliable.

Most fundamentally, undersea technology is far more mature than space technology. Experiments with submarines started as early as 1562. Ballast tanks were patented about 1747. The first military submersible, the Turtle, in 1775, was hand powered, but the technology continued to advance. In 1863, the first non-human powered submarine traveled using compressed air for power. By World War I, submarines advanced to the point of being militarily significant.

The first tourist submarine started operation in 1964. By 1997 there were 45 tourist submarines operating globally, and today an extensive and robust submersible/submarine tourist business exists. Most of these vehicles operate in relatively shallow waters, but about 10 can reach the depths of the Titanic wreck. Of those, the only one not certified or reviewed for safety by independent groups was the now lost Titan.

Some commentators have drawn a contrast between relatively reliable shallow diving submarines and submersibles, and the deep diving vehicles capable of reaching the Titanic at 3,800 meters deep. Notably, vessels capable of reaching such depths have less operational experience than shallow water vehicles, but the Challenger Deep was reached in 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste, so the idea is not entirely new. In fact, you can buy an “unlimited depth” rated submersible from Triton if you have the funds. The Titanic has been visited many times by different submersibles but appears to have some unique dangers that make misadventure almost inevitable.

By comparison, space tourism is just beginning, and government spaceflight is only about 60 years old. Yuri Gagarin became the first human launched into space on April 12, 1961. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon on July 21, 1969. And until the advent of the space shuttle (1981, for partial reusability) or perhaps the Falcon 9 (2015, for first booster stage recovery), all humans flew to space on rockets that were expendable. This means that, unlike every submarine or submersible ever built, it was impossible to inspect the vehicle after each flight for wear and tear, with the result that by normal transportation standards rockets remained relatively unreliable. And although both the shuttle and the Falcon 9 provide valuable information, as does the suborbital New Shepard, the true start of full orbital reusability in space lies in the future when Starship/Superheavy is operational.

However, none of this applies to the Titan disaster. The company who built and managed the submersible, OceanGate Expeditions, operated outside the mainstream in what is otherwise a well-regulated and very safe industry that has not seen a tourist death in many decades. It appears that the builders of the Titan used surplus Boeing aircraft composite materials that were past their rated shelf life. These composites were not recommended for compression environments, nor was the tubular shape of the hull. Despite calls from their colleagues to submit the design to review by the appropriate (and highly experienced) advisory groups, OceanGate persisted. And to avoid the very regulation that can assist other operators in offering safe trips to the depths, the Titan was ferried to the Titanic by a mother ship chartered by OceanGate, with the intention of operating outside of any national laws or regulations.

While perhaps straining the analogy a bit, this is like some entrepreneur paid SpaceX to use the Starship to land a moon buggy on the Moon. The FAA would authorize the launch, but at this time, there are no regulations that cover moon buggies. In this scenario, the moon buggy roars away from the Starship, and eventually meets some misadventure due to poor design and shoddy materials used.

We must challenge those who want immediate regulation of orbital space tourism to lay out the regulations that they think are appropriate.

This is quite different from the current status of space tourism. There are only two suborbital providers, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. From an external view, Blue Origin’s New Shepard appears to be carefully designed and well tested. The recent loss of a booster, with the subsequent safe return of the capsule, suggests that although the design was a good one from a safety perspective, we are still very early on the learning curve with regard to safe and reliably reusable boosters. Unlike the dubious “innovations” of the Titan, which appear to have led only to disaster, the fully reusable New Shepard booster makes a tangible and significant contribution to our ability to fly a high-performance hydrogen and oxygen engine that can be readily refueled with materials obtained in space, including on the Moon.

One can be a bit more skeptical about Virgin Galactic. They suffered a serious accident in testing in which human error led to the breakup of the vehicle and the death of one of the pilots. However, although totally different in design from the New Shepard, SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo have innovated in different ways from New Shepard, the full value of which may lie in the future.

All commercial orbital flights currently use the same Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon 2 spacecraft flown by NASA astronauts, so there can be little doubt that it has been reviewed and inspected as much as humanly possible. None of these vehicles are “safe” in the sense that a car, train, or plane is “safe,” and will likely be superseded by larger and safer vehicles within a few years. But now is not the time to cut off spaceflight innovation with oppressive and expensive regulations of space tourism. Currently we live in a golden age of unprecedented launch vehicle development, but a similar age of in-space vehicle innovation lies in the future and as previously mentioned, we have yet to operate a single fully reusable orbital vehicle routinely.

It’s reasonable to ask, then, when should we regulate space tourism? Logically, for orbital it would be when we are routinely flying fully reusable spaceships, and we have enough flight experience to propose reasonable safety regulations. This is at least 10 years away, and probably more like20 years; it will certainly occur within 50 years. We must challenge those who want immediate regulation of orbital space tourism to lay out the regulations that they think are appropriate. If everyone agrees, those rules can be adopted. But it is far more likely that they will bicker over fine points, or be unable to propose anything useful, or that they won’t want to make their proposals publicly known since their real agenda is to shut down orbital space tourism.

Since both New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo are fully reusable, and have at least some flight experience, it might appear to some that it may be time to allow some regulation of suborbital vehicles. However, the recent successful first commercial flight of SpaceShipTwo on June 29 and the limited number of commercial New Shepard flights suggest that a simple extension of the current “learning period” for five years, to allow for experience to be gained with commercial operations before the imposition of regulations begins, is the best course. At the end of five years, a further extension of the “learning period” for orbital tourism combined with the start of regulation for suborbital tourism might be one option.

There is no scenario in which we see maximum risk mitigation and yet space tourism continues to grow and evolve.

Human life is precious, yet we each risk our lives daily. Driving cars is dangerous (we each have a 1-in-100 lifetime risk of dying in a car related accident), as are hobbies such as hiking that have non-zero death rates. Some hobbies, such as hang gliding and cave diving, present a much higher level of risk, yet are widely pursued with reasonable regulations, or in the case of cave diving, self-regulation, that do not assure absolute safety. We need to collectively strike such a balance in both underwater and space tourism. Regulations must be loose enough to avoid making the activity prohibitively expensive, but strong enough to give a safety-conscious practitioner a good chance of surviving the experience. In time, when thousands of people routinely go to space every day, we will require these spacecraft to meet something like current airline safety standards. But even then, driving a vehicle on the Moon may have a risk level similar to climbing Mount Everest.

Those who advocate for limited regulation of space tourism must own the fact that sooner or later there will be fatal accidents, and some of them may appear to have been preventable in hindsight. That’s why honest liability waivers are critical, and why we must acknowledge the inherent risks of flying in space with hardware available today. But there is no scenario in which we see maximum risk mitigation and yet space tourism continues to grow and evolve. A simple, apparently logical set of regulations requiring all spaceflight participants wear full pressure suits at all times, all vehicles to have launch escape systems, and all vehicles to have ejection seats or other escape measures for all passengers, would shut down all currently operating crewed vehicles, orbital and suborbital, and ensure that human spaceflight costs never are reduced in any meaningful way. In fact, no commercial airliner offers anything of this sort.

We can minimize risk by curbing innovation and activity in the private spaceflight sector with over-regulation, or we can push for reasonable regulation, enlightened and safe operation, and full acknowledgement of the risks involved from the operator. Which future do we want?

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