Guillermo Sohnlein has been unexpectedly thrust into the limelight in the wake of the Titan submersible tragedy.
The cofounder of OceanGate Expeditions has been grappling with questions about the company’s ill-fated trip to the Titanic shipwreck on June 18, which killed five people, including former colleague and friend Stockton Rush.
The sub is thought to have imploded within hours of its descent, raising concerns about OceanGate’s approach to innovation and safety.
But OceanGate is not Sohnlein’s only venture. The businessman’s latest — and possibly grandest — endeavor is to send 1,000 humans to live in Venus’ atmosphere by 2050.
Sohnlein hasn’t let the recent events dampen his ambition and claims humanity needs to continue pushing the limits of innovation.
He maintains his plan is not as crazy as it seems. “I think it is less aspirational than putting a million people on the Martian surface by 2050,” he told Insider.
Sending humans to Earth’s evil twin
Though it’s often called “Earth’s twin,” Venus doesn’t seem like the ideal place for humans to thrive.
Even Sohnlein agrees. “You’re absolutely right that when you talk about going to Venus, it would raise eyebrows outside the space industry. And it even raises eyebrows inside the space industry,” he said.
Venus is the warmest planet in the solar system. Its atmosphere is chock-full of carbon dioxide, its surface temperature could melt lead, and sulfuric acid rains down from its clouds. Its atmospheric pressure is crushing — more than 90 times that of Earth, according to NASA.
In spite of this, Sohnlein doesn’t see why humanity shouldn’t attempt to live on the planet. He points to research that suggests there is a sliver of the Venusian atmosphere about 30 miles from the surface where humans could theoretically survive because temperatures are lower and pressure is less intense.
If a space station could be designed to withstand the sulfuric acid in the clouds, Sohnlein says, hundreds to thousands of people could someday live in the Venusian atmosphere.
He says a floating colony could hold 1,000 people in the Venusian atmosphere by 2050, although exactly how this will happen is less clear.
Part of a bigger plan
A company that designs submersibles and a venture that’s reaching for Venus may not seem alike, but it’s all part of a grander plan for Sohnlein.
The entrepreneur collects companies that bring him nearer to his ultimate ambition: to push humanity beyond its natural boundaries on Earth.
“I think I’ve been driven to help make humanity a multi-planet species since I was 11 years old,” he said. “I had this recurring dream of being the commander of the first Martian colony,” he said.
OceanGate was no exception. Sohnlein and Rush “both saw underwater exploration — and especially using crewed submersibles — as the closest thing that we could do to go into space and further that vision without actually going into space,” said Sohnlein.
OceanGate’s long-term vision was to create cheap crewed submersibles that could be chartered to go to the bottom of the sea. The technologies found along the way to this goal would likely be useful to help humans get to space.
Similarly, Humans2Venus, Sohnlein’s venture studio co-founded with entrepreneur Khalid Al-Ali, will come up with creative business concepts and start-up ideas to overcome commercial barriers to putting humans on Venus.
Along the way, they’ll seek to develop techniques to reduce launch operational costs and fund space missions without support from governmental agencies, Sohnlein said.
Still, for Sohnlein, having 1,000 humans living in Venus’s clouds is not just a motivational goal. “It is aspirational, but I think it’s also very doable by 2050,” he said.
Innovation needs to break barriers
In order to go farther than anyone has gone before, you may need to break a few barriers along the way.
By 2013, the point when Sohnlein handed over the control of the company to Rush, OceanGate had already found ways to reduce the cost of operation and launch costs of the submersible.
But there was one seemingly unbreakable barrier that thwarted Rush’s desire to create an affordable trip to the bottom of the ocean: Every expert said deep-diving submersibles needed to be in the shape of a sphere and made out of titanium steel, said Sohnlein.
This meant they were too small and too heavy to act as the “little buses” to the oceans. So Rush decided to break that unbreakable barrier and make a big deep-diving submersible out of carbon fiber.
For Sohnlein, this type of thinking is one of the things Rush had in common with the likes of Silicon Valley superstars Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
“I don’t think that should have a negative connotation because you could almost argue that it’s a critical element of humanity moving forward,” he said.
“If we didn’t have people that like this, we’d probably all still be in caves,” he said.
There’s no such thing as perfect safety
Rush did not seek to have his submersible certified by independent certification bodies. Sohnlein said. He saw it as a distraction.
One reason is there was no way to independently certify the safety of a completely new type of vessel. There is no independent expert on carbon fiber submersible for deep sea diving because by definition Rush was “one foremost expert” in that field, per Sohnlein.
Because of this, certification would only have served to give the vessel the illusion of safety, which could have led to complacency, he said.
For Sohnlein, in any endeavor that pushes boundaries, explorers need to take calculated risks, he said.
In Rush’s case, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off. Alongside four paying customers who signed waivers saying they acknowledged the risks of the trip, Rush died when the submersible disappeared on its trip to the Titanic shipwreck on June 18.
Silicon Valley should keep pushing humanity to its limits
Sohnlein said the Titan passengers’ deaths shouldn’t stop humans from continuing to investigate carbon fiber hulled submersibles as a way to reach the bottom of the ocean.
Humanity must push the limits of innovation, he believes, despite the Titan tragedy.
“Forget OceanGate. Forget Titan. Forget Stockton. Humanity could be on the verge of a big breakthrough and not take advantage of it because we, as a species, are gonna get shut down and pushed back into the status quo,” he said.
Insider asked an independent expert whether sending humans to Venus was a realistic goal by 2050.
“If political will and a lot of money going into it, then I’m sure humanity could do it,” said Andrew Coates, a professor of space physics from University College’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory who is working on instruments for a planned robotic mission to Mars.
“I suppose the question is why do we want to do that?” he said.
For him, Venus is no worse a target for humanity than Mars. The point is that both would create environments that would be extremely harsh for humans.
Exposure to cosmic radiation, unyielding temperatures, and long space trips aren’t the only problem. It takes a very particular type of person to be able to live in closed environments like these for a prolonged period of time.
“People compare it to a month-long caravan trip. Some people can do it, some people can’t,” he said.
A finer point is that budding research suggests the building blocks of life may be found on both Venus and Mars and that bringing humans to these planets could contaminate these pristine environments, he said.
If humanity does need to move beyond Earth because it needs more space to expand, the moon, which is closer, “is perfectly fine for that,” said Coates.
But for Human2Venus, the question is not “why Venus.”
“Perhaps a better question would be ‘Why not?'” its website reads.