Jun 25, 2023 - Science

Titanic sub tragedy stokes fears for space tourism

Photo illustration of OceanGate Titan and SpaceX Crew Dragon over a background of shapes, patterns, and a view of the Earth from space.

Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Anadolu Agency, Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The catastrophic implosion of a submersible near the wreckage of the Titanic is a sobering moment for another extreme and risky tourism industry: private human spaceflight.

Why it matters: It's not a matter of if, but when a deadly accident will rock the commercial human spaceflight industry, experts say.

  • "It's sort of an easy parallel to make," space lawyer Michelle Hanlon tells Axios. "You're in a capsule with a window that is its weakest point, and you're going into an environment that is deadly."
  • And submersibles like OceanGate Expedition's Titan are subject to few safety regulations, much like the vehicles that take extremely rich customers to space.

State of play: Three companies are currently capable of flying passengers to space.

  • Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic fly paying customers to suborbital space, while SpaceX is able to fly astronauts and private citizens into orbit.
  • More competitors are expected to make it off the ground in the coming years.

Between the lines: The Titan accident has raised fresh questions about the lack of regulations governing companies like OceanGate — echoing a debate that's been happening for years within the spaceflight industry.

  • Congress has explicitly prohibited the Federal Aviation Administration from enacting any regulations designed to protect the safety of people flying into space. It can only concern itself with the safety of people on the ground.
  • Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are responsible for informing passengers of the risks they take by stepping aboard one of their spacecraft.

The moratorium on regulation was put in place to give a new industry some time and flexibility to get off the ground and establish its own best practices.

What we're watching: The space industry's "learning period" is set to expire later this year.

  • Some in the industry worry it is still too nascent to survive strict safety regulations, and want Congress to extend the regulatory freeze.
  • But the OceanGate accident could convince Congress and the FAA to impose more stringent regulations on the private space industry when the moratorium expires, Hanlon said.
  • "Just as there are concerns about too much government regulation killing industry, I think there should also be concerns about not enough regulations that lead to unsafe commercial practices killing an industry," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden tells Axios.

Flashback: The private spaceflight industry has already experienced high-profile issues.

  • In 2014, one pilot was killed and another severely injured during a test flight of Virgin Galactic's space plane. SpaceShipTwo also went off-course while taking Richard Branson and other passengers to suborbital space in 2021, sparking an FAA investigation.
  • Last year, Blue Origin's New Shepard failed during an uncrewed flight, forcing an abort. The company has yet to fly a mission since that mishap.

Go deeper: Private human spaceflight's future hangs on looming regulation

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