It’s been some time since the world witnessed the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In fact, it’s approaching four decades since the shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. Ultimately, it was determined that adequate safety measures failed, resulting on a faulty O-ring that caused the explosion. NASA’s space program would take decades to recover before once again pursuing advanced space explorations. And this time, space programs are embracing private enterprises to facilitate innovation and outcomes. The issue, however, is that these private companies are helping fuel a rise in extreme tourism beyond government programs. And with these experiences comes heightened adventure tourism risks. It’s therefore not surprising new disasters comparable to the Challenger are once again occurring.
Recently, another major tragedy occurred off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. OceanGate Expeditions, launched a submersible vessel that carried five passengers into the depths of the ocean. The experience was to travel some 13,000 feet below the surface to see the wreckage of the Titanic. But tragically, the submersible imploded for reasons not yet known, and all five of the passengers and crew died. This included CEO Stockton Rush. As with space travel, adventure tourism risks with submersibles are not insignificant. Neither are other forms of extreme experiences. But what is noteworthy is the lack of safety requirements overseeing these experiences. To date, this has not yet deterred the rise in extreme tourism. But should more events like this occur, this could certainly change.
“The key element in any expedition is you got to be thinking, what could go wrong? What can I do to mitigate that risk…Something always bites you that you didn’t expect.” – Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate
Existing Measures to Mitigate Risks
If you’re wondering what safeguards exist to prevent such events like OceanGate’s, the answer might be surprising. At the present time, federal regulations do not cover such excursions, especially when in ocean depths and international waters. The same pertains to space tourism, which is being actively explore by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin. The adventure tourism risks with both types of endeavors are serious and include death. But at the present time, such adventures fall outside the realm of regulatory oversights. Instead, safety measures in place are only those that private companies choose to embrace. Certainly, all such companies including OceanGate take precautions. But compared to other industries, the measures tend to be much less intensive and restrictive.
Though there has been a rise in extreme tourism in both the ocean and space, little has changed when it comes to safety oversight. In terms of space, the existing federal law that governs safety oversight is the Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act of 2004. This placed a moratorium on the FAA from regulating commercial space companies for eight years. This law has since been extended twice by Congress with another vote due in October. As a result, commercial enterprises such as SpaceX and others determine their own safety guidelines. Each acknowledges the reality of adventure tourism risks. But at the same time, these types of companies don’t want to suppress innovation and progress by being overly strict. Many believe this is why events like OceanGate’s implosion will continue to occur. In fact, some believe they will increase given the rapid rise in extreme tourism.
“There’s a strong concern that not having those safety regulations is going to mean some fly-by-night, shady operations that result in customers being injured or potentially killed.” – Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation
A Rise in Extreme Tourism Mishaps?
The OceanGate tragedy made headlines recently, especially given the crew on board. CEO Stockton Rush was notably part of the crew that descended into the ocean’s depths. In addition, so were a British billionaire adventurer, a French diver explore, and a father and son from Pakistan. They were informed of the adventure tourism risks but believed the opportunity to be safe. It might be therefore presumed that the OceanGate catastrophe was an isolated occurrence. But this is not necessarily true. Other accidents related to extreme experiences have occurred in recent years. And if the rise in extreme tourism continues to grow, these events may be in the news more often.
In the commercial space sector, there has been a recent rise in extreme tourism accidents. SpaceX boasts abouts its multiple failures at launches over the years as being the path to progress and innovation. Though expensive, none of these have resulted in human deaths. In 2014, however, Virgin Galactic reported a test flight that resulted in the death of a pilot and severe injuries to another. In 2022, Blue Origin had one of its passenger space crafts crash due to engine failure. Fortunately, no one was on board. But the event still demonstrates the inherent adventure tourism risks involving new and extreme experiences. And it also shows that serious accidents occur at a rate more frequent than routinely appreciated.
“I would love to see government, industry, academia all get together and see if we can put together something that everyone would agree to.” – George Nield, President of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC
Businesses Need to Make the Industry Safe, Not the Government!
In preliminary assessments of the circumstances surrounding OceanGate’s vessel’s demise, the leading theory suspects poor design. The implosion of the submersible likely resulted from a breach of its hull. This may have occurred due to a leak, a power failure, or electrical navigational problem. Interestingly, however, its hull was composed of carbon fiber, which had never been used at such ocean depths. Adventure tourism risks exist with any extreme environment exploration. But they were likely even higher for the submersible since it had never gone through a formal certification process. Such shortcuts appear to be common in these industries even as a rise in extreme tourism occurs.
In the past, safety regulations for any burgeoning industry eventually occur from federal and international agencies. This will likely occur for the space and deep ocean experience sectors as well as the rise in extreme tourism grows. But waiting on such regulations invites opportunities for government overreach that could suppress innovation. Instead, it is important that commercial enterprises themselves be proactive in ensuring tourist safety. While adventure tourism risks will always be higher than other experiences, that’s not a reason to cut back on safety oversight. The best safety policies will be those that are self-imposed by businesses and industries grounded in ethical practices. This is what needs to happen in space and deep ocean tourism. This will pave the way to fewer catastrophic events without hindering the progress and innovation desired.