Exploring Risk Assessment and Safety Considerations in Space Tourism: Lessons from Deep-Sea Exploration and The Case of the OceanGate Submersible in 2023

By: Nashide Pelin Kurtaran


                      “It’s a scary thing to launch people you know the risk is never zero.” 

                    Elon Musk – Return to Space (Documentary)

Space tourism and deep-sea exploration stand as pioneering frontiers of human endeavour, pushing the boundaries of what we know and where we can go. However, with these ventures come numerous, risks that demand careful consideration and proactive management. Drawing insights from the deep-sea exploration industry, particularly the case of the OceanGate submersible incident in 2023, underscores the critical importance of robust risk assessment methodologies and safety protocols in ensuring the well-being of explorers. The OceanGate tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the inherent dangers in extreme exploration, prompting a closer examination of risk factors and mitigation strategies across both space tourism and deep-sea ventures.

Risk Assessment Methodologies: Risk assessment serves as the cornerstone of safety management in any high-risk endeavour. As outlined by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, risk assessment involves a systematic process of identifying, analysing, and evaluating potential hazards associated with a particular activity or project. In both space tourism and deep-sea exploration, risk identification is the first step towards ensuring safety. From launch failures to environmental hazards, a wide range of risks must be carefully considered and evaluated to mitigate potential threats to crew and passengers alike.

In the context of space tourism, risk assessment involves identifying risks associated with various stages of the journey, including launch, microgravity effects, spacecraft malfunctions, re-entry challenges, and regulatory compliance. Each of these risks presents unique challenges and requires tailored mitigation strategies to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. Similarly, in deep-sea exploration, risk assessment encompasses hazards such as equipment failures, environmental impacts, health risks, and lack of regulations. By systematically identifying and analysing potential risks, space tourism and deep-sea exploration operators can develop comprehensive safety protocols to mitigate the likelihood and severity of adverse events.

Potential Risks in Space Tourism: Space tourism, while promising unparalleled experiences, presents numerous potential hazards that must be addressed to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. Launch failures, microgravity effects, spacecraft malfunctions, and re-entry challenges are just a few of the risks inherent in space travel. Launch failures, such as engine malfunctions or structural issues, could lead to catastrophic accidents, jeopardising the safety of crew and passengers alike. Microgravity effects, experienced during the transition to and from microgravity environments, can cause motion sickness, disorientation, and physiological changes in the human body, requiring proper preparation and support.

Spacecraft malfunctions, including failures in life support, navigation, or communication systems, pose significant risks to the safety of space tourists. Environmental hazards, such as radiation exposure, micrometeoroid impacts, and extreme temperatures. Medical emergencies, cabin depressurisation, and re-entry challenges represent additional risks that must be carefully managed to ensure the safety and well-being of passengers and crew.

In addition to technical challenges, space tourism operators must navigate regulatory challenges, financial risks, and public perception issues. Evolving regulations in the space tourism industry could create uncertainties and challenges for operators aiming to comply with safety standards. Financial risks, stemming from the high costs of space tourism development and operations, could affect safety measures. Public perception issues, arising from accidents or failures in space tourism missions, could impact the industry’s long-term sustainability, underscoring the importance of effective risk communication and stakeholder engagement.Potential Risks in Deep-Sea Tourism: Deep-Sea tourism, like space tourism in its adventurous spirit, also brings its risks and challenges. Safety concerns, health risks, environmental impacts, and lack of regulations are among the key considerations for deep-sea exploration. Safety concerns, including decompression sickness, equipment failures, and accidents, pose significant risks to deep-sea tourists. Health risks, such as exposure to high-pressure environments, extreme temperatures, and reduced oxygen levels, require careful management to ensure the well-being of participants.

Environmental impacts, including damage to fragile marine ecosystems, pollution, and disturbance of marine life, raise concerns about the sustainability of deep-sea tourism. Lack of regulations and oversight in many areas further compound the challenges of ensuring safety and environmental protection. Balancing the economic benefits of deep-sea tourism with the need to protect marine ecosystems requires comprehensive regulation and sustainable practices to mitigate potential risks and ensure responsible exploration and tourism activities.

OceanGate and the Titan Submersible Tragedy: The OceanGate submersible incident in 2023 serves as a sobering reminder of the risks inherent in extreme exploration. The tragic loss of all crew members aboard the Titan submersible underscores the importance of safety protocols and thorough risk assessments in deep-sea ventures. Despite advancements in technology and safety measures, accidents like the Titan tragedy highlight the unpredictable nature of extreme exploration and the need for constant vigilance in managing risks.

‘Your marketing material advertises that the TITAN design will meet or exceed the DNV-GL safety standards, yet it does not appear that Oceangate intends to follow DNV-GL class rules. Your representations, at minimum, are misleading to the public and breach industry-wide professional law conduct all endeavours uphold.’

The preceding paragraph originates from a letter the Marine Technology Society (MTS) authored and addressed to Mr. Stockton, the founder of OceanGate. However, OceanGate mounted its defence, presenting its viewpoint through a court filing in May 2021. The company highlighted that the Titan submersible had undergone a comprehensive series of over 50 test dives, including ones that reached depths as to the Titanic’s resting place. These specific tests were meticulously carried out in the deep waters surrounding the Bahamas and within a pressure chamber, reaffirming the submersible’s capabilities.

Lessons Learned and Future Directions: As the Space tourism and Deep-sea exploration industries continue to evolve, the lessons learned from past incidents must inform future endeavours. Robust risk assessment methodologies, clear communication channels, and collaboration among stakeholders are essential for ensuring the safety and sustainability of extreme exploration ventures. By heeding the lessons of the past and prioritising safety above all else, the Space tourism and Deep-sea exploration industries can pave the way for a future of responsible and rewarding exploration beyond Earth’s bounds and beneath the ocean’s depths.