- Risky tourism to the edges of the world and beyond is becoming more common.
- The US Coast Guard-led Titan submersible rescue effort may have cost millions.
- But it’s unclear how a rescue for a commercial spaceflight would work or who would pay for it.
The multi-day search and rescue mission for Titan, which finally ended after debris was found from the submersible, showed how difficult – and expensive – trying to rescue people from the deep sea can be.
But when a commercial space expedition runs into trouble, the logistics of a rescue mission could become even more difficult.
The submersible experienced a catastrophic implosion while taking tourists to the Titanic shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, killing everyone on board. His fate and the associated unsuccessful rescue operation now make researchers look anxiously at the sky.
Access to space presents a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is the safe transportation of humans into environments otherwise incompatible with human life.
But tourist expeditions into space are on the rise: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have taken fare-paying passengers to the edge of space, while SpaceX is sending tourists all the way into orbit.
Luckily everything went according to plan. But what happens when a disaster strikes?
“How salvage will be handled on commercial flights remains unclear,” said Leroy Chiao, a retired NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, in an op-ed for CNN. “However, there are the same uncomfortable questions raised in the discussion about rescuing a submersible from the seabed: what is the plan if the spacecraft loses the ability to get home on its own? Who will bear the cost of a space rescue?” If something goes wrong? Should the taxpayer be expected to cover all or most of the cost?”
NASA used to have rescue missions ready
Chiao, who has also served on SpaceX’s Safety Advisory Board, NASA Advisory Board and the White House Committee on the Review of Manned Space Plans, said one of the hardest parts of extreme travel is rescuing the crew.
After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA adopted a new protocol in case a rescue was needed.
On January 16, 2003, Columbia took off on her 28th and final flight. During launch, a piece of foam broke off and hit the shuttle’s left wing, but the extent of the damage was not fully known. When Columbia attempted to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, it disintegrated, resulting in the deaths of all seven astronauts on board.
It would be two years before another NASA space shuttle was sent into space. The agency conducted “launch on need” missions, fully assembled and ready to fly, to rescue crew members from a space shuttle that failed to return to Earth successfully, as in the case of Columbia.
By the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, none of the contingency missions were ever required. To get astronauts into space, NASA now relies on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft or private companies like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
How to “get stuck” in space.
Chiao told Insider that a scenario in which a spacecraft might “get stuck” in space — or be unable to return home — is actually only relevant to orbital flight.
Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic currently only offer suborbital flights – meaning the spacecraft aren’t fast enough to get into orbit.
“It is completely different in suborbital flight. The trajectory is an arc. You go up and down like a cannonball,” Chiao said, adding, “You won’t get stuck in space.
orbital flights could Stranded in space, but the International Space Station is helping to prevent that.
Typically, orbital flights are launched directly to the ISS, or at least in the same orbital plane — the imaginary flat surface extending from Earth and along which the ISS flies — so they can maneuver and dock with the station if needed, and use it as a safe port until they could be rescued.
“But if they launch into a different orbital plane, they’re on their own,” Chiao said. “That means if they have a problem and they can’t get back down on their own, they just keep circling the earth and they’re sort of done for.”
He said that SpaceX, which transports NASA astronauts and paying tourists to orbit, would most likely always launch to the ISS, or at least the same orbital plane.
However, if they had an orientation or navigation problem, they could end up on the wrong plane. And they could just choose to launch into another orbital plane if that would allow them to use less fuel, but Chiao said it’s highly unlikely they’d take that risk.
It’s also worth noting that SpaceX’s collaboration with NASA requires it to meet the agency’s safety standards, unlike Blue Origin’s and Virgin Galactic’s suborbital offerings, which aren’t independently certified.
It’s unclear what would happen if a rescue was required
According to Chiao, SpaceX does not have a “launch on need” rescue service for each of its missions and instead relies on the ISS as a safe haven as a contingency plan. But even if a spacecraft unable to return to Earth’s atmosphere could temporarily dock with the ISS, another spacecraft would be required to retrieve the crew members and bring them home.
“There’s not necessarily another spacecraft operational,” Chiao said.
And a space flight isn’t exactly something that can be pulled off overnight. There is also the question of who would organize or pay for it.
“If it was a SpaceX vehicle that got them there, SpaceX would probably be willing to launch another vehicle to rescue them,” Chiao said. “Why would NASA have to pay for this?”
On Earth, the Coast Guard does not charge for rescue operations in US waters, including the search for the submersible Titan, which is estimated to have cost millions of dollars. But space has no counterpart to the Coast Guard. There are no national territories or agencies operating in space that would automatically take over.
But as more companies send tourists into space, the question of who would step in to help in an emergency becomes more relevant.
Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX did not respond to insider requests for comment.