Scams of the Future: Surviving OceanGate Co-Founder Promises His Venus Colony Will Be Safe

Hey, y’all remember that submarine full of foolish rich people that imploded near the Titanic? I know it didn’t get much coverage, but since I was in the tiny minority of people who actually knew about it, I thought it made a great illustration of the hubris and incompetence of the aristocracy chosen by capitalism. Well, it turns out that the surviving co-founder of Oceangate, owners and operators of that submersible deathtrap, wants to send people to Venus. Venus.

But OceanGate is not Söhnlein’s only venture. The businessman’s latest — and possibly grandest — endeavor is to send 1,000 humans to live in Venus’ atmosphere by 2050.

Söhnlein 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.

Though it’s often called “Earth’s twin,” Venus doesn’t seem like the ideal place for humans to thrive.

Even Söhnlein 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, Söhnlein 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, Söhnlein 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.

Well, I’ll give him one thing – I think his plan has about as much chance of success as Elon Musk’s plan, given that, as far as I can tell, Musk has been largely pretending that the radiation problem doesn’t exist. For those who are unaware, our atmosphere and magnetosphere shield us from being constantly bathed in radiation. Out in space, and on a planet like Mars that has a thin atmosphere and no magnetosphere, there’s a real risk of radiation sickness, cancer, and more fun problems:

NASA’s current risk models assert that radiation-based cancer mainly comes from cosmic rays messing with our DNA, but the team’s new model suggests the reality could be far worse. After studying tumors in mice, the researchers believe that cells damaged by cosmic rays could actually impact other healthy cells around them, like a deadly domino effect.

“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” Cucinotta explained in a statement. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”

Worst of all, spacesuits probably won’t help much.

“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable,” Cucinotta said in a statement. “Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”

Clearly, more research will have to be conducted in order to confirm just how at-risk Martian explorers will be, and what can be done to protect them from cosmic rays (mice aren’t humans, after all). But to add one last bummer layer of news, Mars has a super thin atmosphere—less than one percent of Earth’s—so it will expose people to even more radiation once they land. Hopefully, this all gets sorted out soon before the Martian colonies begin, because goddamn would that be disastrous.

Does anyone seriously think that one of the geniuses behind the Titan submersible is going to do space travel safely? It’s not just the radiation, though, because as mentioned above, Söhnlein says he wants a colony on Venus, either by somehow making it entirely acid-proof, or relying on the extremely long-shot hypothesis that readings of ammonia might mean that a portion of the upper atmosphere might not be entirely made up of clouds of sulfuric acid.

I don’t really think that this guy is going to try to send people to Venus by 2050. Honestly, I think by then, climate change will have caused enough problems that if we’re still capable of space flight, nobody’s going to want to indulge billionaire escapism. Is that optimistic? Maybe, but I think what this guy is actually doing, is conning his fellow rich assholes out of their money.

That said, Söhnlein is now famous for being part of a group that needlessly ignored serious and credible warnings, and got five people killed in one of the most horrific (if mercifully quick) ways it’s possible to die. The man’s record indicates that he might very well try to send people to Venus, and in that case, I think that space may become the latest and most horrific frontier in libertarians conning each other.

When I say “libertarians”, I’m talking about the US version of libertarians, as inspired by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism – people who want free-market capitalism without any government interference, because they haven’t figured out that capitalism is utterly dependent on government interference to keep capitalists intact and in power. Self-styled “anarcho-capitalists (ancaps for short) are another version of the same, who mistakenly believe that because they want to be governed by capitalists, without any “real” government involved, that that makes them anarchists. For many of these people, there’s a sort of frontiersman fantasy that they keep coming back to that takes a couple forms. The basic fantasy of both of them, is to go somewhere out of reach of the interference of governments, where they will naturally thrive, uplifted by the raw power of human innovation, unshackled from the limitations of small-minded cowards who don’t want to die because a rich person thinks workplace safety is a waste of money.

The first, and most theoretical, is seasteading – the idea of building a city-state on something like an old oil rig. The one I think is more applicable is the Flying Dutchman of Objectivism, Gault’s Gulch. For the uninitiated, this is a reference to Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, in which a rail tycoon storms off to some secluded capitalist utopia, along with his fellow rich people, thus leaving all of us poors to, in the words of the author, starve in our hopeless ineptitude. My favorite example of an attempt to do this took place in Chile, back in 2013 before the people put the left back in charge. I say it was an attempt, but true to the spirit of Ayn Rand and US libertarianism, not everyone was in it for the dream:

Galt’s Gulch, Chile was a libertarian paradise and completely obvious catastrophe conceived by John Cobin, Germán Eyzaguirre, Jeff Berwick,Wikipedia and Ken Johnson.[2] GGC claimed to feature 11,000 acres of land located in picturesque valleys full of fresh air in a low-tax country, where Randians who believed in capitalism, limited government, and self-reliance would be able to form a sustainable community that expressed their ideals. (Spoiler: It went to shit.)

Soon after the first parcel of land was placed under agreement, conman Ken Johnson was able to defraud his partners of their share of the project and take complete control.[3] He did not work to develop the properties for a community, but instead worked an affinity scam. Johnson used Berwick and other libertarian “celebrities” to dupe his victims. He even offered discounts for those who paid in Bitcoin or precious metals as part of the confidence scheme.

Johnson started selling properties in late 2013 and early 2014 until a marketing event in April 2014, where it was found that the properties had never been zoned for sale (i.e., no approved master plan, water rights not transferred to GGC). Also, there were a number of outstanding bills to contractors that had not been paid (and who refused to perform further work). After seeing Johnson’s presentation, a number of the original investors who attended the event lost faith in the project and requested their money back.[4] According to his investors and his erstwhile partners, Johnson never did his due diligence before buying the properties. His defense of the dismal situation was to rant about unknown enemies of the project all around.

Just prior to the April 2014 marketing event, the GGC bank account had been blocked to receiving international wires due to Johnson’s violations of the know-your-customer regulation in Chile. He was approached by Chilean swindler Mario Del Real who convinced Johnson that the GGC corporations were not legally structured and that Johnson should partner with Del Real to rectify the situation. Del Real also offered his daughter’s bank account for GGC’s use. Inexplicably, Johnson agreed to this obvious scam and ultimately transferred half ownership of GGC to Del Real. This began a finger-pointing soap opera between the swindling partners which has stuck the project in limbo and the Chilean courts.[5][6]

Apparently John Cobin took his love of capitalism so seriously that he ended up being locked up for shooting anti-government protesters in 2020, ahead of the 2021 general election.

I think this is the kind “space colonization” we can expect over the next couple decades – people investing money in a pipe dream, and never seeing a return on that. There may well be some real attempts, and I think they’ll be expensive and end in tears, but mostly, it’s a con. Unfortunately, it looks like we can expect taxpayers to be some of the most profitable marks in that con, which brings us back to the sad reality of our warming world.

In principle, I have no problem with billionaires killing themselves through their own hubris. It’s not like they haven’t been warned, and it’s not like the world would be worse off for their absence. The problem is, we can’t afford the resources that are already being poured into their vanity projects. We’ve got problems aplenty here on Earth, and the “solutions” that the billionaires want us to fund start with the assumption that the lives of everyone on this planet, except the billionaires themselves, are meaningless. To them, saving humanity means making this planet uninhabitable, in pursuit of helping people like Musk and Söhnlein escape to somewhere they can play space king. It’s no different from the billionaires building mansion bunkers and planning to use shock collars to control their security guards, except that we’re all funding the “space bunkers” not just through exploitation and wage theft, but also through our taxes and the pollution caused by their rockets.

There’s one way I’ll reconsider, though. I will entertain suggestions to send all the ultra-rich to Mars and Venus in whatever spacecraft we have lying around, say, next year? Then maybe the rest of us can get on with saving humanity.


  1. says

    First Rule of Phony Prophets: “Never stop talking.”

    Second Rule: “Never change your story.” You die with the lie.

    This guy is a con-artist and a buffoon. And the minute he stops repeating his “we’re the bold brave innovators who will make everything possible by 2050” shtick, it will be his admission that he knew it was a con all along. And what else can he do — get a job with General Dynamics?

  2. says

    I mean – it seems like the Titan incident was a great opportunity to say he was going to take some time for reflection, and live happily ever after with his millions, out of the public eye.

    But maybe that’s me thinking like a poor person?

  3. invivoMark says

    I’m surprised I did not hear about the Galt’s Gulch in Chile, but that is literally the plot of the 2007 video game Bioshock: an idyllic society of Ayn Rand enthusiasts whose society almost immediately collapses because of a con artist.

  4. says

    The first, and most theoretical, is seasteading – the idea of building a city-state on something like an old oil rig.

    Yeah, that idea appeals to upperclass twits whose only experience of sailing the seas is being on a posh paid cruise, where they can enjoy pretending they’re all free ‘n’ easy while being totally blind to all the hard collective effort that goes into operating a ship or other offshore facility, and keeping all those fancy comforts and amenities operative for the paying passengers’ amusement. Anyone who’s seen the inside of an actual working ship can tell you all that Randian blithering about anarcho-utopia at sea is pure fantasy — and not even plausible or informed fantasy at that.

  5. says

    @invivoMark – I looked for a Stupendium Bioshock song, but the closest I could find was someone else doing a rap with Stupendium’s help, and it didn’t seem worth including.

    @Raging Bee – I do like the idea of building a community on an oil rig, but yeah – it seems like it wouldn’t be practical or pleasant, unless land became uninhabitable for some reason, and at that point, it seems doomed to fail. This does seem to be about fantasies of being oppressed as rich white dudes, so they’d probably say that the mainland is uninhabitable, because of all the oppressive regulations.

    @Dunc – that article is gold. I was caught by the shock and anger at their discovery of the pretty obvious fact that the shipping industry has regulations.

    Libertarianism, more than anything, seems to be rooted in an aggressive resentment of having to understand anything about the world.

  6. says

    Dunc: God’s Death, what a bunch of ridiculous lying escapist halfwits. I couldn’t even get through the first two paragraphs without thinking “these people need to die before they waste any more oxygen!”

    The difficulty in starting a new form of government, said Friedman, was simply a lack of space.

    Um, no, you lying laissez-fairy, it’s your utter lack of any remotely-decent specific new ideas that are worth anything to pre-existing real people.

    These people, and everyone else like them, really need to take up permanent residence in the Smugasso Sea, and never come back.

  7. says

    a rail tycoon storms off to some secluded capitalist utopia, along with his fellow rich people, thus leaving all of us poors to, in the words of the author, starve in our hopeless ineptitude

    I just imagined Peter Thiel working in a field alongside Donald Trump, and laughed out loud.

  8. says

    I just imagined Peter Thiel working in a field alongside Donald Trump, and laughed out loud.

    But I’m the unrealistic utopian.

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