A tourist submarine lost at sea has been at the center of the news, but next time it could be a tourist spacecraft in need of rescue.
The undersea tourism business operates in a similar regulatory environment to space tourism: Participants must be informed of the risks, and then anything goes. The passengers onboard OceanGate’s submersible as it dove to the Titanic this week include Hamish Harding, who had already been to space onboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
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From a passenger’s perspective, a spacecraft disabled in orbit would be much like the current situation in the north Atlantic: A trapped crew with limited resources, facing a race against time to be rescued. But while the US and Canadian governments have dispatched aircraft and ships to aid in the search for the missing submarine, the response to a disabled spacecraft in orbit would be very different.
There are no plans in place at NASA or at SpaceX, the only company that can currently fly humans off-planet, for how to mount a rescue in space. (SpaceX didn’t respond to a question about in-space rescue, nor did Axiom Space, a private company that operates passenger missions to the International Space Station.)
Grant Cates, a former NASA engineer who now works at the Aerospace Corporation, a government-backed think tank, argues that the situation needs to change. NASA learned through hard-won experience that redundancy is key: Having two spacecraft—a lunar lander and a command module—made Apollo 13’s escape from disaster possible, while the Columbia tragedy might have been avoided had NASA sent a rescue rather than attempting to return the damaged Space Shuttle to Earth. China keeps a backup spacecraft ready for launch in case of problems that require a crew evacuation of its new space station.
The light-touch regulation for space tourism is designed for suborbital flights like those offered by Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. These are short hops to the edge of space in vehicles that aren’t capable of staying in orbit. The companies are responsible for their own safety practices, and their vehicles are designed with parachutes to bring them safely back to the ground (New Shepard) or able to glide to a landing without engine power (VSS Unity). They also fly brief missions in designated areas, under close observation. If something goes wrong, finding the vehicle and deploying emergency services are straightforward tasks.
Flying humans into orbit is different. While launch abort systems can keep astronauts safe before they get to space, and the International Space Station offers shelter, free-flying spacecraft—like the Dragon on the Inspiration4 mission—are on their own. If a micrometeroid or space debris damaged the vehicle’s heat shield, solar arrays, avionics or propulsion systems, its passengers would depend on being rescued within about a five days of launch.
Cates and other experts expect that if a crew were in need of rescue, space agencies and private companies would rally to the effort. Indeed, spacefaring nations like the US, China, and Russia are obligated by UN treaties to assist in search and rescue missions for astronauts in distress, according to Chris Johnson, a space law expert at the Secure World Foundation.
The issues are capability and preparedness: Launching a crewed spacecraft within five days is big ask. Moreover, not all spacecraft have compatible docking systems that would allow for a crew rescue. Cates thinks the US should be doing more to prepare in advance for rescue missions, including promoting universal docking standards and making rescue planning a part of the launch licensing process.
While that may not seem necessary today, with comparably few human spaceflight missions, NASA and the space industry writ large envision a future in which multiple commercial space stations are orbiting the planet and frequently visited by a variety of human crews. The more time people spend in orbit, the more likely an accident is to occur.
The good news, per Cates, is that “we are very close to having the capability for space rescue.” The growing launch cadence around the world and proliferation of human-rated vehicles mean that a little coordination could go a long way toward making space rescue possible. Companies and countries launching crewed missions could be aware of when the next human-rated spacecraft is expected to launch and consider it as a rescue solution—assuming the vehicles in question have compatible docking systems.
“We can cobble together, in that fashion, a limited rescue capability to close the gap,” Cates says. “It doesn’t need to be all that expensive.”
The alternative is contemplating the fate of fellow humans caught in a death trap. Cates references the story of Admiral Charles Momsen, a US Navy submariner who was unable to rescue the crew of sunken submarine in 1925. “I myself never felt more useless,” Momsen said of finding the wreck in 131 feet of water and being unable to reach it. He would pioneer new technologies to rescue trapped submariners, which were used to save 33 people from a flooded sub in 1939.
Today, we have the tools needed to rescue people trapped in space. It’s just a matter of making sure they’re ready at hand.
Two SpaceX Dragon spacecraft are docked at the International Space Station; you can see one sticking up vertically, and another just to the right of module. In an orbital emergency, it might be possible to dispatch a spacecraft from the ISS to act as a rescue vehicle, depending on the specific orbit of a disabled spacecraft.
Intelsat has had enough of SES. The two satellite telecom companies were considering a tie-up capable of creating a stronger competitor for SpaceX’s Starlink, but talks have foundered in recent days. That helps explain the unexpected departure of SES CEO Steve Collar earlier in the month, but it doesn’t change the pressure for consolidation in space communications.
Virgin Galactic has meme stock power. The company’s stock (SPCE) soared this week as the company announced the return of revenue-generating flights, but true profitability will have to wait for a new class of ships launching in 2026.
Ursa Major has layoffs. The rocket engine start-up laid off 80 people, just over a quarter of its workforce, last week; the company said it needed to restructure despite a $150 million round in Oct. 2022 and several new contracts.
Northrop has another satellite servicing mission. Intelsat purchased a Mission Extension Pod, a propulsion module that can be attached to an existing satellite to extend its operational life. Northrop will fly a robotic spacecraft in 2025 that will attach the pods to two Intelsat satellites and another operated by the Australian company Optus. The deal is another step forward for the nascent satellite-servicing industry.
Rocket Lab has a hypersonic testbed. The US-New Zealand rocket company launched HASTE, a modified version of its Electron rocket that will be used to test hypersonic weapons, for the first time this week.
China has launched 41 satellites in one rocket. It’s a new record for the country (the global record of 104 spacecraft at once is held by India’s PSLV rocket) and speaks to the rapid growth of assets in Earth orbit.
Last week: What is the future of satellite telecommunications?
Last year: Redwire sells the first manufactured goods from space.
This was issue 185 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your space rescue plans, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.