Accident of the Titan sub shows the danger of space tourism

The recent high-profile disaster of the Titan submersible has become the embodiment of a nightmare scenario for companies that offer extreme types of tourism. Among the five who died during the underwater explosion of the Titan were OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, British businessman Hamish Harding (who flew into space in 2022 on the New Shepard spacecraft of Blue Origin), French deep sea explorer Paul Henry Nargeolet, British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son Suleman. This tragedy can be a particularly important lesson for the rapidly developing space tourism industry. Will it be an impetus to pay more attention to the safety of passengers, or will the pursuit of profit eventually take over?

How will the Titan disaster affect the safety of space tourism?

When it comes to the lack of safety standards and technological supervision in space tourism, space security expert Tommaso Sgobba does not spare words. When there were reports of a catastrophic explosion of a non-certified tourist underwater vehicle during an excursion to the site of the death of the famous Titanic, Sgobba noticed similarities with some incidents. During his career, the Italian engineer led more than 800 safety checks of payloads sent to the ISS, and was also the author of engineering textbooks on the best safety practices in the design of space systems. Currently, Tommaso Sgobba heads the Association of the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) and has been waging a quiet war for many years for tougher inspections of companies developing security systems for space tourism.

Underwater Disaster Lessons for Suborbital Tourism

Unlike Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo or Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, the Titan underwater vehicle did not need independent certification for use in deep-sea tourist dives. Even OceanGate CEO and billionaire Stockton Rush generally ridiculed any statements about the availability of safety certificates for the Titan submersible. In response to criticism, Rush accused experts of suppressing innovation and boasted about the uniqueness of OceanGate technology. The billionaire believed that the risk was justified, because passengers after a dangerous journey would get a unique experience that would be remembered for a lifetime.

All these statements echoed the arguments that Sgobba had heard for years from representatives of the space tourism community. But for a veteran space security engineer, these arguments always sound unconvincing. 

“Standards in aviation and astronautics evolved from the requirements that emerged after overcoming problems with potential hazards. In fact, if you want to fly a coffee machine to the International Space Station, you will have to comply with the same set of standards,” says Sgobba.

The moratorium on regulation, issued by the US Congress in 2004 and extended several times, does not allow the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to interfere in issues related to the safety of flight participants in the field of space tourism. Companies must prove that their flights do not pose any risk to people on the Earth and other users of the airspace, as well as demonstrate that their spacecraft worked during one previous flight. This moratorium ends in October 2023, and the Titan disaster may become the argument that will persuade lawmakers to strengthen responsibility for safety and extend the moratorium.

Examples of successful space tourism

For many years, Sgobba has been advocating the creation of an independent Space Security Institute, a non–governmental organization of industry experts modeled on classification societies that monitor standards in the shipping industry. 

Sgobba cites SpaceX as an example of successful private space tourism that has benefited from such regulatory measures. The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which required the firm to pass a strict safety check. After the first flight to the International Space Station, funded by NASA in 2020, SpaceX carried out its own space tourism mission Inspiration 4 and established itself as a service provider for the private American company Axiom Space. SpaceX has also signed contracts for new private Dragon space flights with American billionaire Jared Isaacson as part of his Polaris program.

OceanGate exploited a loophole in the legislation by building a non-certified bathyscaphe “Titan”. Moreover, passengers signed a written consent that they were aware of all the risks and accepted them. Including the fact that they are making a potentially life-threatening journey in an unregistered vehicle that has not been checked by any independent expert. If the bathyscaphe had passed certification, the disaster could have been avoided.

The space security community is likely to closely monitor how the Titan tragedy will be handled in court, and whether these informed consents will withstand Rush’s years-long disregard for the opinions of other experts documented in the documents. Sgobba, for example, doubts this.

Hidden dangers

Existing commercial space flights have not yet led to the death of people. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company has made six successful manned flights on the New Shepard spacecraft. However, a crewless mission using the same rocket failed in September 2022 after an accelerator malfunction. The company said it expected to resume flights in the coming weeks.

The crash of an aircraft from Virgin Galactic in 2014

Blue Origin’s competitor, Virgin Galactic, has already experienced one fatal crash. The company, which takes USD 450,000 for suborbital flights offering about five minutes of weightlessness, suffered a fatal accident during a test flight in 2014, when one of the two pilots on board was dead and the other was injured. The cause of the crash was recognized as the premature deployment of the braking system of the aircraft caused by human error.

The first crew of Virgin Galactic in 2022 deviated from the approved flight route due to the fact that the company did not take into account the strong wind at high altitude. The incident led to an FAA investigation and a ban on further flights pending its resolution. Now the company has announced that on June 29 it plans to make its first commercial flight called Galactic 01, on board of which there will be three Italian Air Force servicemen, as well as a Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer and two pilots.

Earlier we reported on how a space tourist shared his impressions of the flight to New Shepard.

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