Editor’s Note: Leroy Chiao, Ph.D., works as a consultant and the co-founder and CEO of OneOrbit LLC, a motivational training, education and talent management company. He was a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005 and flew four missions into space aboard three Space Shuttles, and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be the commander of the International Space Station. He has served on the Safety Advisory Panel for SpaceX, as well as the NASA Advisory Council and the White House Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
As the world grapples with the implosion of the Titan submersible, commercial space companies are pressing ahead with plans to offer short hop adventures beyond the skies. And they’re doing so despite parallels between space tourism and ventures that travel the depths of the oceans.
British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for one, launched its inaugural commercial flight on Thursday, the first to fly passengers and crew to a point just past the 50-nautical-mile altitude mark, the official boundary of space as set by NASA. The spacecraft carried a crew of Italian scientists and engineers on a trip financed by the Italian Air Force. Another company, Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, already has flown several paying customers to suborbital space.
It can be tempting to compare underwater and space adventure excursions. Both carry travelers aboard specially-designed vehicles into hostile physical environments, where living beings would otherwise not be able to survive.
And both cater to the curiosity of wealthy tourists, allowing them to travel to places they could never get to on their own and which most people may never have the financial wherewithal to visit. A ride aboard the Titan was said to have cost $250,000. Virgin Galactic has sold about 800 tickets, including 600 at prices up to $250,000 and another couple hundred at $450,000 per ticket.
There are important differences between a voyage to the depths of the ocean and travel to the edge of space. Trips aboard the submersible lasted multiple hours, while the space trips are over in minutes. Visitors to suborbital space will also experience microgravity and the beautiful view of the Earth from space.
For the sake of clarity, I should also differentiate between the commercial suborbital spacecraft built and operated by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, and the orbital spacecraft designed and built with NASA involvement, SpaceX’s Dragon and the upcoming Boeing Starliner.
Several spaceflight participants, or non-professional flyers, have safely and successfully flown orbital missions aboard Russian Soyuz and Dragon spacecraft over the years. Both types of space flights involve adventurous wealthy individuals, but bear no real similarity to the Titan excursions.
As we saw with the Titan, perhaps the most challenging aspect of extreme travel – in space as well as in the depths of the ocean – is crew rescue. The rescue effort for the Titan submarine was vast and costly, involving assets and personnel from several countries and commercial companies.
For NASA and Russian missions, use of the International Space Station (ISS) as a safe haven is part of the contingency plan. How rescue should be managed for commercial flights remains unclear. There are, however, the same uncomfortable questions that were raised in discussion about rescuing a submersible from the ocean floor: What is the plan if the spacecraft loses the ability to come home on its own? Who will foot the cost for a space rescue if something goes awry? Should taxpayers be expected to cover all or most of the expense?
The current suborbital offerings are different from the commercial orbital spacecraft. They use vehicles that were designed and built by commercial companies. In the US and for all US companies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the regulatory body responsible for issuing launch and landing licenses, and for assessing environmental and public safety of vehicle operations.
The FAA does not certify these vehicles, however, as they do airplanes. Its role is significantly different from that in the commercial airline world. Verifying the operability of these vessels remains, for now, the job of the companies themselves.
People often ask me if I would fly on these vehicles. The answer is I might have – if I had the financial means and had not already had my NASA spaceflight experiences. I’ve flown on four missions to space, but I’ve never been fortunate enough to be part of a lunar mission. So yes, I would consider it, if it involved travel to the Moon.
But before I boarded a commercial spaceflight, I would do a lot of homework first. And I would do the same before boarding any vessel that plunged into the deepest part of the ocean.
The key thing for any would-be passenger planning to board commercial vehicles to space or in the ocean is informed consent. Passengers have to take the time and effort to inform themselves about any potential risks and then decide whether or not to take part.
Passengers on the Titan had to sign informed consent documents, just like the non-professional individuals who choose to go on a spaceflight adventure. Due diligence should include asking a lot of questions and looking into the company, history, and as much as possible, the technical aspects of the vehicle and operations.
Many issues were raised about Titan, the company and the founder, post-accident. I hope these questions were asked by the participants before they went on the dive.
But here’s the bottom line: Life is about balancing risks and rewards and, in most cases, society leaves it to adult individuals to decide for themselves.
There will always be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking after any tragedy. But this should not lead to restrictions on our freedoms or curtail our curiosity when it comes to exploring the farthest reaches on Earth and beyond.