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OceanGate Titan
The loss of the Titan submersible with five people on board has triggered discussions about the differences between deep-sea and space travel, and between tourism and research. (credit: OceanGate)

The highs and lows of extreme tourism: The Titan accident and commercial expeditions to space and the deep sea

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On June 18, 2023, the OceanGate submersible Titan imploded in the midst of an expedition to view the remains of the Titanic, the famous ocean liner that sank after striking an iceberg on April 15, 1912. Between the Titan’s demise and the discovery of the submersible’s debris on June 22, speculation spread far and wide about the fate of the five participants. They were OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Action Aviation chair and recent Blue Origin astronaut Hamish Harding, Pakistani business executive and SETI Institute trustee Shahzada Dawood, and Dawood’s 19-year-old son, university student Suleman Dawood. Conversations proliferated across news stations and social media about whether the five might be stuck in the submersible with a dwindling oxygen supply or whether some or all had of the passengers had already died.

There is no hard line between “discovery” and “recreation,” and like the pilgrim who turns into a tourist and back again, an explorer can move back and forth between investigating and passively enjoying the ride.

As private and governmental resources were dispatched to the site of the Titanic wreckage, criticisms of the expedition itself multiplied. In particular, angry commenters correctly or incorrectly contrasted the frenetic media response to the Titan disappearance with the comparatively muted reaction to the June 14 sinking of the Adriana, a migrant ship in the Mediterranean, that killed hundreds of passengers. A few online voices suggested that the kinds of people who could afford to visit the Titanic deserved what they got, and, in some cases, actively celebrated the Titan passengers’ likely demise. When the destruction of the submersible was confirmed and the lives of those on board were verified to have been lost, the implosion of the Titan became a cautionary tale in many circles, a story about the arrogance of “rich tourists” who foolishly think money can buy them access to “extreme destinations.” Private space expeditions and submersible expeditions were mentioned in the same breath. Many of the critiques were based on the idea that people who pay to descend to the Titanic, like those who pay to ascend to space, are mere tourists, dilettantes who pretend to be researchers or adventurers with no real background or standing.

Tourists vs. explorers

I have studied tourism for decades as an anthropologist. Although my first field site, the French shrine of Rocamadour, is a religious location that attracts pilgrims, many of its visitors are secular, and the locale is a very popular tourist site as well. Anthropologists of pilgrimage (see, for instance, Badone 2010) have frequently noted that while it is considered honorable to be a religious pilgrim who visits a location with religious piety as one’s main motivation, tourism is often thought to be inferior. Badone writes that “the prevalent Western characterization of tourism [is] frivolous and hedonistic.” She notes, though, that there’s no clear-cut difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. In fact, it is possible for a tourist to become a pilgrim and a pilgrim to become a tourist very easily, switching back and forth based on activity and the mindset of the participant.

In 2020 I wrote about space tourism with Badone’s caution about indistinct categories in mind, arguing that space tourists (who often prefer to be call spaceflight participants because of the stigma associated with tourism) shift between the categories of tourist and explorer in similar ways. In an analysis of Anousheh Ansari’s visit to space in 2006, I wrote:

The work involved in being a spaceflight participant…sets it apart from the relaxation and play experienced by a tourist. By using the term “participant,” Ansari is indicating that she had a role to play in the mission being undertaken on the ISS and links her activities with the much more prestigious term “exploration” …The comparison Ansari is drawing, however, is not one of physical exertion, it is one of contributing to a shared project under potentially dangerous circumstances. Tourism is passive, while spaceflight participants see themselves as explorers—active, productive, willing to experience danger for the greater good …and helping to create an intensely believed-in future that will benefit humankind.

The term “exploration” has multiple definitions, as it turns out. Merriam-Webster online includes “to investigate, study, or analyze” as well as “to become familiar with by testing or experimenting” and ‘to travel over (new territory) for adventure or discovery.” “Tourism,” on the other hand, is defined as “the practice of traveling for recreation.” Whether one is taking a spacecraft above the Earth or a submersible to the bottom of the ocean, then, the terms “tourist” and “explorer” are subjective. There is no hard line between “discovery” and “recreation,” and like the pilgrim who turns into a tourist and back again, an explorer can move back and forth between investigating and passively enjoying the ride.

It’s not necessarily coincidental that commercial passengers on spaceflights and deep sea descents have a lot in common; in fact, the two groups overlap much more than might be imagined.

Exploration can be expensive, and the costs involved certainly limit who can participate. Academics who conduct fieldwork or expeditions come from a wide range of disciplines. According to the Explorers Club’s website, “The Club’s members include leaders in polar exploration, diving, aerospace exploration, archaeology, zoology, physics, oceanography, astronomy, ecology, geology, paleontology, conservation mountaineering, and speleology” (“Join Us” 2022). Other areas of study are represented as well. While most academic research is funded by grants, usually provided by government agencies like the National Science Foundation or private funding sources like the National Geographic Society, sometimes wealthy individuals with interest in an expedition act as sponsors. In some instances, this interest includes both funding and participation.

The case of Joseph Banks

One historical example of the sponsor/participant explorer is Joseph Banks (1743–1820), who was born into a wealthy English family but grew up deeply interested in the natural sciences. He inherited a considerable fortune upon his father’s death in 1761 and began to both encourage and serve as a patron of various voyages of exploration at that time. By 1766, he had become a member of the Royal Society (also known by its full name, The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.) Through his business connections and childhood friendships he began to try his hand as an explorer himself, first sailing on the HMS Niger with his school friend Constantine Phipps to the northeast coast of Canada. While there, Banks documented multiple new plant and animal species.

Soon after this first taste of exploration, through his Royal Society standing, Banks was able to get himself appointed to Captain James Cook’s first South Pacific expedition (1768–1771) on the HMS Endeavour (a voyage that seems to have inspired many other Endeavours, including the Apollo 15 command module Endeavour, the space shuttle Endeavour, and the Crew Dragon Endeavour). He worked as a naturalist on board and paid for the inclusion of eight others, including two more naturalists, two artists, and several servants. Banks continued his botanical and zoological research, wrote thoughtfully about the culture and people of Tahiti (James Wallace Harris (2010) calls him a “proto anthropologist”), and helped document the transit of Venus in 1769. Banks spent the rest of his life funding countless other scientific expeditions (and, unfortunately, encouraging the colonization of Australia and its use as a penal colony.) His work as a ship’s naturalist, however, served an important role in the progress of the biological sciences (for more on Joseph Banks, see Harvill 1988, Holmes 2010 and Musgrave 2021).

Tourism, research, or both?

Although living in a very different time with very different opportunities for research, many spaceflight participants and others who partake in what is sometimes called “extreme tourism” have a similar relationship to the pursuit of knowledge. OceanGate’s video “Titanic Expedition Dive Experience 2023” (now removed but accessible via the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine”) stated that typical passengers on Titan expeditions were trained in what the video calls “citizen science” and were expected or encouraged to collect data and make observations during visits to the wreckage of the Titanic. (There is a sense of urgency to this research since some scientists believe the wrecked liner will disintegrate by 2030 (Godin 2020).) Most participants in orbital “space tourism” have also conducted research of one kind or another. The crew of 2021’s Inspiration4 mission, for example, worked with the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) to collect biological and medical data, conduct cognitive tests, and measure balance and perception in response to gravitational changes, among other research activities (“Inspiration4 crew will conduct health research to further human exploration of space,” 2021).

Similar research has been conducted by paying participants in the SpaceX Axiom flights. According to the Axiom-1 website, “Among the unique attributes of the Ax-1 Mission is the ability for astronauts to curate their own research portfolios in collaboration with leading institutions around the world, in addition to supporting Axiom-managed investigations” (AX-1 mission research n.d.). Most of this research appears to be, like that of Inspiration4, predominantly medical in nature. The physical strains of space travel, including harmful impacts of microgravity and radiation on the body, are serious problems with the potential to limit human activity in space. The willingness of “space tourists” to add to existing medical knowledge is a tangible benefit of these “touristic” missions.

While it is less common, some suborbital spaceflight participants have managed to conduct research during their short periods in space. Virgin Galactic, which recently conducted its first commercial spaceflight, has been calling attention to the research potential of their brief missions. A recent article on their website notes that the company “has announced a new contract to fly Kellie Gerardi, a researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), on a dedicated research flight, during which Kellie will conduct experiments and test new healthcare technologies while she is in space… The IIAS and Virgin Galactic teams will collaborate with academic and government partners to carefully plan Kellie's flight activities to maximize the science and technology advancements gained from the research experiments” (VIRGIN GALACTIC ANNOUNCES NEW CONTRACT FOR HUMAN-TENDED RESEARCH SPACEFLIGHT n.d.). In another upcoming Virgin Galactic flight, Alan Stern, the principal investigator of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s New Horizons mission, is scheduled to fly while testing imaging equipment (Wall 2020). Once again we see no clear line between the categories of “tourist” and “researcher.” Having participants do research is one way of collecting data but also helps justify and elevate participation, differentiating it from passive tourism.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle after its first commercial flight in June, carrying three Italian researchers. (credit: J. Foust)

Space connections to deep sea tourism

It’s not necessarily coincidental that commercial passengers on spaceflights and deep sea descents have a lot in common; in fact, the two groups overlap much more than might be imagined. A voyage to the bottom of the ocean is every bit as “alien” as a trip into space, requiring a specially designed vehicle to resist the dangers on the other side of the hatch and taking passengers into environments that are incompatible with human life. Although danger, prestige, and adventure are sought out by some, other customers (either paying themselves or sponsored by someone else) also appear to see the deep ocean as a challenging but accessible analog for space missions. In a December 2022 Huffington Post article, for example, written a few months before the Titan accident, Ben Blanchet interviewed Alan Stern about his July 2022 voyage to see the Titanic in the OceanGate Titan. Stern drew comparisons between his descent to the famous shipwreck and his career exploring outer space through missions like New Horizons. Blanchet explains:

Planetary scientist Alan Stern said he wasn’t prepared for the “intersections” his oceanic expedition to the Titanic made with his career, which includes his time leading NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Stern… revealed the parallels he discovered between the oceanic journey he made through OceanGate Expeditions ― a company that offers trips to the Titanic’s resting place in the Atlantic Ocean ― and exploration of space. The scientist joined OceanGate Expeditions, which is offering $250,000 expeditions for people to see the famed ship roughly 12,500 feet below the ocean surface, on its “Titan” submersible as a mission specialist and scientific expert (such experts don’t pay fares to join the expeditions). A number of Stern’s contributions to the mission ― in addition to offering his planetary knowledge ― included collecting water column samples, aiding with ocean bottom sampling and providing assistance with communication to a team on the surface during the descent.

Stern isn’t the only person involved in space exploration to have participated in a submersible or deep submergence vehicle expedition; many former astronauts and others with space connections have undertaken voyages to see the Titanic or to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the lowest point on Earth. Those with space connections who have traveled in the Limiting Factor deep-submergence vehicle (built by Titan Submarines, a company unaffiliated with OceanGate despite both using the name “Titan”) include retired NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, spaceflight participant Richard Garriott and commercial spaceflight passengers Dylan Taylor and the late Hamish Harding (Harding was later killed in the OceanGate Titan accident). Both Taylor (2021) and Harding (2022) also went into space on Blue Origin flights. Limiting Factor pilot Victor Vescovo has flown into space with Blue Origin as well (“List of people who descended to challenger deep,” 2023).

Getting researchers into unearthly places is expensive, and it is often the paying customers who initiate and fund opportunities to do research.

Other participants in OceanGate Titan expeditions had clear space connections. For instance, the late Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, who, like Harding, was killed in the Titan accident, was a trustee for the SETI Institute (“Shahzada Dawood,” n.d.). Meenakshi Wadhwa (a planetary scientist at Arizona State University) and her husband Scott Parazynski (retired NASA astronaut) were Titan passengers as well, and were interviewed for the aforementioned OceanGate promotional video, “Titanic Expedition Dive Experience 2023.” It’s impossible to know for sure which participants in various forms of “extreme tourism” sought knowledge versus adventure, or bragging rights versus useful data. More evident is that space tourism and deep sea tourism often draw from the same populations and can be grouped together as voyages to otherworldly locales (outer space and inner space, perhaps).

Ethical considerations

Getting researchers into unearthly places is expensive, and it is often the paying customers who initiate and fund opportunities to do research. Much as Joseph Banks’ involvement and financial investment allowed the Cook expedition to bring along additional scientists and artists (recalling the planned dearMoon mission organized by Yusaku Maezawa (see Howell 2022)), the tickets purchased by Harding and Dawood were intended to (ideally) fund another research opportunity for Titanic expert PH Nargeolet while allowing the two paying customers to assist him or work on smaller projects. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” NASA was able to conduct Moon missions because it had access to funds from the US government. Commercial exploration, whether to space or to the bottom of the ocean, also needs to be funded. While some companies, like SpaceX, do have access to government coffers, additional funding comes from “extreme tourists” who, because of their equally extreme wealth, bear the brunt of public criticism.

This is not to say that space tourism, submersible tourism, and deep-submergence tourism are innately ethical or above criticism. Deep sea exploration has the potential to benefit both humanity and our planetary ecology, but only when done cautiously and correctly, with attention to safety regulations and accepted standards. When efforts to cut costs and increase profitability take precedence, however, problems clearly arise. After the Titan accident that took the life of OceeanGate CEO Stockton Rush and four others, prior comments by Rush that appeared to downplay his commitment to safety came to light, as did evidence of internal communications about problems with the submersible. These revelations make it abundantly clear that the Titan missions needed much more oversight. When passengers return from expeditions with useful data, it tends not to make news. However, when researchers and their sponsors are harmed or die on these types of expeditions, the expeditions themselves are more likely to be devalued and dismissed, seen as wasteful follies full of unnecessary risk. At the time of this writing, no similar accident has befallen a commercial space launch with paying passengers, although the high-profile losses of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia have made the dangers of space travel all too clear. Perhaps the story of the Titan will serve as an additional cautionary tale, encouraging commercial ventures to continue putting safety first.

Another criticism of “extreme tourism” is that because many of its participants are wealthy, if tragedy strikes a greater effort will be made to help them than would be made to assist “ordinary” people. When the Titan lost contact with OceanGate personnel, social media posts and opinion pieces argued that the wealth and status of its passengers led to a “massive international search and rescue mission that brought together the governments of Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States” that cost approximately $1.2 million (González 2023). Public interest in the story clearly influenced both media coverage and rescue efforts, although that interest might not have been due the wealth of the passengers. It seems more likely that the story of the Titanic, which has been part of American mythology for over a century, particularly the idea of the ship somehow claiming new victims, captured the imagination of the public.

Similar stories of people trapped with limited food, water, or oxygen have launched intense rescue efforts when the victims weren’t wealthy at all. Take for example the massive efforts made in 1987 to save “Baby Jessica” McClure, who fell into a well in Midland, Texas, and was helped by “dozens of rescue workers” over the course of two days (“Baby Jessica fell down a well on Oct. 14, 1987” 2021) or when thirteen young members of a Thai soccer team were trapped in a cave in 2018 and were eventually rescued after 18 days, efforts that actually led to the death of one of the rescuers (Soontornvat 2020). These stories suggest that the large (and ultimately futile) search and rescue mission to save the crew of the Titan was probably more about the situation, another compelling race against time, than about the wealth of the parties involved.

Privately funded excursions to space or the sea floor should be understood as human endeavors that are subject to human frailty but hold the potential to be beneficial if those involved can embrace a thoughtful approach that prioritizes ethical conduct and responsible practices.

Another critique is based in the idea that commercial exploration, especially exploration that requires buying a ticket, is a waste of resources. Why would someone spend $250,000 to descend to the Titanic or arc above the Kármán line, instead of donating that money to charity? For many, tourism isn’t even the issue. When the American government began sending humans into space in the 1960s there were multiple protests (see Tribbe 2014). Critics then, as they do now, argued that enormous amounts of money collected from taxpayers then spent to launch people into orbit, explore other planets or send astronauts to the Moon could be better used to feed the hungry or improve the conditions of the poor on Earth.

Although commercial spaceflight relies less on funding from American taxpayers than NASA does, the biggest proponents of commercial space exploration (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, for instance) have been subject to similar scathing commentary, nonetheless. While some criticism has focused on company practices that appear to undervalue or silence employees in the name of profit, other contemporary reproaches have focused on the morality of space entrepreneurs using their wealth (seen as ill-gotten gain) for self-aggrandizement or make-believe.

In “The Wrong Way Home: St. Elon’s Digital Cult of Personality, Messianic Meditations of Mars, and the Musketeer Meme Militia,” Sarah McFarland Taylor argues, “Merely humoring (some might contend ‘enabling’) Musk’s cleverly marketed delusion of terraforming and colonizing Mars has real-world Earthly consequences for a planet contending with serious challenges, such as climate change, that warrant prioritizing human focus on sustainably reinhabiting our own terrestrial home… The U.S. government has paid billions to Musk’s private space company, not simply enriching his corporate and personal wealth, but fueling his fantasies of colonizing Mars and extracting Earth’s remaining resources in order to do it” (Taylor, 2023). Taylor portrays commercial spaceflight (which would include spaceflights that include paying participants) as a sham and the space entrepreneur as a con artist or fool, promising something he may or may not believe he can actually provide and fleecing American taxpayers along the way. For those who see commercial space travel as something feasible, and eventually profitable, dismissing it as “fantasy” seems unfair and unrealistic. Elon Musk may not be the epitome of morality, but he’s also can’t be realistically depicted as a mustache-twirling villain, laughing as he counts his piles of money.

It’s easy to see commercial expeditions to space or to the sea floor (particularly those that involve paying participants) in black and white, concluding that this kind of private exploration is either an unmitigated good with a long-term promise of saving the planet, or an unalloyed evil that permits the rich to both ignore and exacerbate humanity’s urgent problems. The truth is obviously more complicated (for an excellent analysis of diverse views on the morality of space exploration, I recommend Erika Nesvold’s Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Space). Commercial expeditions to space, to the bottom of the ocean, or to the Titanic are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are expensive, risky, may divert resources from more pressing problems, and may be founded on a limited and very profit-driven vision of the future. They can also be seen as good faith attempts by participant-researchers to better understand the universe around us and our place in it, as well as an opportunity to develop useful tools and technologies. In short, privately funded excursions to space or the sea floor should be understood as human endeavors that are subject to human frailty but hold the potential to be beneficial if those involved can embrace a thoughtful approach that prioritizes ethical conduct and responsible practices.


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