OceanGate’s Titan submersible
Three articles today all asked the same question as I pose above in the headline, noting the similarity in the business model of the deepsea tourism company OceanGate Expeditions and the burgeoning space tourism business, including both suborbital and orbital flights.
- Space News: What the wreck of the Titan portends for commercial spaceflight
- Houston Chronicle: How the Titan submersible tragedy could impact space tourism
- Florida Today: What the lost Titanic submersible means for explorers and space tourism
Without question there will be many more such articles in the coming days, as more information is gathered about what caused the failure of the Titan. As these three articles do, all will note the similarities and differences between deep sea tourism and space tourism.
First the differences. Space exploration and rocketry have been around a lot longer and have a lot more experience with disaster, which also means the engineering and the safety regulations for space are far more developed and robust than with deep sea exploration.
Space tourism is also closely linked with the long term goal of building human colonies, something that really doesn’t drive the deep sea tourism. This distinction further encourages space tourism companies to make their systems more robust, as they have much more long term ambitious goals they wish to sell.
As for the similarities, both appeal to the same demographics, wealthy individuals with a hankering to go somewhere challenging and dangerous. Both appeal to the basic American values of personal responsibility, a willingness to explore and take risks, and, most important, a willingness to accept those risks and not allow them to stop you.
All three articles however also unconsciously recognize that America is no longer the free country where individuals were completely free to take such risks. The government now closely monitors and regulates space exploration, and the biggest question all three articles raise involves the government’s reaction to the Titan failure. Will it use that failure as a wedge to increase regulation on space tourism? All three articles think this is very likely, and worry that the new regulations will squelch this new industry that is fueling the coming settlement of the solar system.
The timing of the Titan failure could very well be critical, as it occurred just as federal lawmakers are trying to decide whether to extend the regulatory moratorium created by the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. That law created a period in which private companies could fly risky missions, with less safety regulation, in order to allow them to experiment with this new technology. It recognized that not enough was yet known to allow the government to impose strict safety rules.
Congress has extended that moratorium several times, and is now considering another extension. The coverage of the Titan failure — assuming it follows the negative and fear-driven approach that is now typical of the press — could very well encourage Congress to clamp down, and impose its will on space, in a manner that will stifle the experimentation that is presently allowing this new industry to grow.
All three articles above, as well as my essay here, come from space-focused news outlets, so all argue that the government shouldn’t panic and impose its will. All are also well educated in the details of space tourism and rocketry, and understand that there are clear differences between deep sea tourism and space. What happened to the Titan does not parallel closely the half century of extensive engineering that new rocketry relies on today.
What the mainstream press will do however is another thing entirely. It is generally ignorant, unwilling to learn, and quick to establish narratives based not on information but on emotional partisan politics. The result in the past two decades has routinely been to encourage bad government policy that has been restrictive and damaging. We need only look at the panicked, foolish, and failed response to COVID to see a clear demonstration of this.
The next few weeks will tell the tale. It seems imperative that the space industry immediately begin a full court press on Congress, working to prevent a regulatory steamroller to gain speed, fueled by the sensational and fear-driven coverage of the Titan failure. If it does not, it likely will find itself struggling to breath under the weight of more rules and restrictions, all of which will accomplish nothing but kill the future.
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