How my exploration of the Titanic led to a realization about the future of spaceflight


In July, I took part as a scientist in a commercial deep sea company’s amazing dive to explore the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, about 12,000 feet beneath the North Atlantic. Next year, I am scheduled to fly to space aboard commercial space company Virgin Galactic to conduct a suborbital research mission for NASA. Both of these activities are examples of modern-day exploration using high tech vehicles that didn’t exist until recent years.

Just like the exploration of space I have participated in during my career, our exploration of the Titanic was impactful to me both as a scientist and as a human. The wreckage is clearly decaying with time, and will someday, not too many decades hence, surely not be recognizable as the grand ocean liner it once was. Our exploration also revealed to me, firsthand, the vibrant ecosystem of animals and plants that inhabit the deep ocean bottom, despite its frigid temperatures and very high pressures.

Exploration like this, and exploration of all kinds – from the arctic to the Antarctic, from deep sea to the highest mountains, from our Earth to the Moon and planets – is something uniquely human. No other species on Earth explores — exploration is truly a defining trait of our species.

Exploration is also something that brings benefits beyond measure. After all, past waves of exploration gave birth to vast economic expansions, to human and societal inspiration beyond measure and even to modern democracy itself.

It is often now said that exploration is something that is mostly complete, because all the great explorations across this planet and the pioneering explorations of space are in our past. But I believe exploration is only now opening up on much grander scales.

Consider this: The exploration of Earth’s five deep oceans has reached only about 20 percent of the places deep beneath the waters. And in space, humans have so far not reached any of the planets, only the Moon. And our robots, though better traveled than humans, have landed on only a handful of the solar system’s largest few dozen worlds.

Looking ahead, the exploration of the oceans and space is aimed to dramatically accelerate. But in contrast to past waves of exploration, the space and ocean exploration future being born today will be driven in large part by the entry of private-sector companies rather than traditional, governmental or philanthropic entities. This new wave of commercially driven exploration is typified by Oceangate, the private company that organized and executed my dive to the Titanic, and by my upcoming space mission aboard a Virgin Galactic commercial spaceship.

NASA and its sister governmental space agencies across the world will continue to pioneer too. But make no mistake, the pace of private-sector exploration of the oceans and space is rapidly increasing. This newly prominent mode of exploration by large, resource mining firms and large space exploration companies also includes hundreds of other large and small firms.

These new private-sector exploration firms are involved in pursuits as diverse as adventure tourism, mineral exploration, Earth observations, scientific research and education. Other use cases are sure to follow as these industries grow and prices drop with economies of scale.

And these new exploration companies, in many cases competing with one another for capital, market share and customers, are giving birth to a reinvigorated era of technology innovation and new sources of capital to space and sea exploration that were long lacking.

In fact, the rapid pace of innovation and the amped-up funding resources made available through private capital markets for sea and space exploration enterprises are very much akin to the same kinds of innovation and capital infusion that occurred when computers were transformed (and hence transformed our lives) in the 1980s-1990s. The computing revolution made mainframe computers extinct and gave rise to ubiquitous personal computing.

As a result of new private-sector entrants, we are now witnessing the very earliest days of what is likely to become an unparalleled era of exploration by humans, across both the ocean floor and deep space. With that, we should expect new economic, social, scientific and inspirational benefits we can hardly imagine, and that’s just as exciting.

S. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist who leads NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. He is a member of the US National Science Board and former board chairperson of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

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