The search continues for exploration company OceanGate's Titan submarine and its five crewmembers, who went missing Sunday afternoon during a dive down to the Titanic wreckage in the North Atlantic.
Back on land, the commentariat is taking no shortage of joy in their misfortune, pointing to a long list of statements from OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush (who is on the Titan craft) about prioritizing innovation over the safety concerns expressed by former employees and other marine industry professionals.
Here's a reason I'm a pro-mockery of the OceanGate fiasco: that whole "regulations stifle innovation" thing that crops up in their PR to present the whole "untested and unlicensed" thing as a feature rather than a bug: people who want us eating heavy metals for breakfast say that
— Alexandra Erin | firstname.lastname@example.org (@AlexandraErin) June 21, 2023
The mockery about Titan's comeuppance is, for the moment, premature given that rescue operations are still underway. It's a little tasteless given that even risk-tolerant libertarian businessmen and their paying customers are still in fact human beings. And he's right that regulation stifles innovation.
But tweets like the one above also miss Rush's acknowledgment that his company was taking a risk. His argument was not that by taking the risk, everything would work out fine. It was that the risk he wouldn't make it back to land was worth it if it meant he got to see the wreckage of the Titanic up close.
Some people may not find that tradeoff personally compelling. But it's not that different from the goals that animated a long line of astronauts, test pilots, explorers, and more who all took insane risks (and often died) just to be the first person to do something or see something.
By modern standards, Ferdinand Magellan took an incredibly foolhardy risk to try and sail around the globe in a leaky carrack. And it didn't pay off! He was killed during his voyage. Robert Falcon Scott was taking large unnecessary risks by trying to be the first person to reach the South Pole. He made it there (albeit in second place) but froze to death on his way back to civilization.
There's no pressing societal need served by someone planting a flag at the bottom of the world or being the first to circle the globe. These men still felt it was worth the risk and history generally seems to agree with them. Even people who don't personally have the risk tolerance of a 16th-century explorer can still admire the drive and the effort.
To be sure, there's nothing admirable about imposing massive risks on uninformed or unsuspecting parties. The OceanGate crew seems likely to have been well aware of the Titan vessel's safety risks, as was the general public—the company itself discussed them at length on its website.
Past passengers had to sign consent forms describing the vessel as "experimental" and uncertified, and that could potentially lead to their deaths. If the same is true of this most recent Titan mission, the people traveling with Rush knew they were taking major risks as well.
People who do take massive risks shouldn't expect a massively publicly funded effort to bail them out of trouble. At a press conference today, a Coast Guard spokesperson said that a four-nation mission of air, surface, and subsurface vessels had yet to locate Titan.
If the assumption at OceanGate was that they could take a chance on their experimental vessel because the Coast Guard (and taxpayers) would always be there to save them, then the company was inappropriately trying to socialize their losses.
It shows that they too might have lost some of the golden age explorers' tolerance for risk. Magellan didn't have a Coast Guard to count on when he set off on his journey.
One could make the case that the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian military, and British and French rescue personnel should leave it to the private sector to find and rescue Titan. They got themselves into this situation, and they should get themselves out of it.
OceanGate legal and operational advisor David Concannon complained in a NewsNation interview (and again in a follow-up Facebook post) that the government was slow to approve the deployment of private submersibles needed to reach and rescue Titan.
Somebody simply has to write the ultimate catch-all essay on disruptive, libertarian, private-sector-touting entrepreneurs simply begging and demanding for state intervention at the end of their journeys. (This is the Titan sub company's adviser.) pic.twitter.com/dsB9YLln8w
— Eve Fairbanks (@evefairbanks) June 21, 2023
That dumb billionaire oceangate submarine guy flaunted doing things in international waters where he'd be free of pesky regulation.
Now our regulated tax dollars are being used to search for him and his gameboy controlled submarine.
They always come crying for a bailout.
— President Kamala's Hand (Again) (@myronjclifton) June 21, 2023
It's unclear exactly what approvals the company is waiting on, or how crucial those submersibles would be in the rescue mission.
Since taxpayers have already shelled out for massive publicly funded search and rescue operations, perhaps the most humane thing to do is deploy them trying to find the lost craft (and then send OceanGate a big bill for all their efforts).
User fees help private parties internalize the risks they take. Doing so would let people better price risky exploratory trips to the bottom of the ocean. But putting some value on that trip to the bottom of the ocean wasn't the sin it's being made out to be.