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How OceanGate Went from Disruptive Startup to Catastrophic Deep Sea Failure

In April 2018, on a sunlit day, Stockton Rush offered a subtle nod as the camera began recording. Positioned on a gleaming silver launch platform in Washington, Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, an ocean exploration company, prepared to christen their latest submersible, Titan.

A small gathering of approximately a dozen individuals awaited his words. With the spotlight on him, Rush elaborated on his inspiration behind the creation of this new vessel, emphasizing its intended capability to reach depths of up to 4,000 meters, as he had previously stated.

“This technology is what we need to explore the ocean depths,”

Stockton Rush said, adding that Titan would open up 50 percent of the planet.

Five years later, Titan, the submersible, has vanished at sea along with its five passengers. The incident occurred during a dive to the Titanic, the renowned wreck that served as OceanGate’s flagship destination for a blend of adventurous startup tourism and ostensibly scientific documentation of its deteriorating remains.

The individuals on board include Hamish Harding, an intrepid adventurer; Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an explorer and the director of underwater research for the company holding salvage rights to the Titanic; Shahzada Dawood, a businessman, accompanied by his teenage son Suleman; and Rush himself.

With the submersible losing contact, the group’s survival hangs in the balance as they face the grim reality of having only a few hours’ worth of air left. Meanwhile, teams of highly skilled experts and military vehicles scour the area, located 400 miles south of St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a desperate search for any signs of the missing craft and its occupants.

Amidst the tension, Rush, clutching a piece of paper, periodically expresses gratitude. He extends his thanks to OceanGate’s dedicated team, the partners who contributed various technologies for the vessel, and a special group of individuals: OceanGate’s shareholders.

The sub and its expedition have become subjects of intense scrutiny among social media users and journalists. Every minute detail is being dissected, ranging from the sub being piloted by a video game controller to its utilization of Starlink internet on its support boat, and the repeated safety warnings associated with Titan.

For over a decade, OceanGate has diligently documented the progression of its submarines, its business ventures, and its philosophy of “responsible commercialization” through an extensive collection of YouTube videos. However, the majority of these videos, including the Titan christening video, have garnered very few views.

OceanGate’s YouTube channels feature a wide range of content, including webinars about their business model and scientific breakthroughs, professionally produced advertisements, low-resolution cell phone videos captured inside their submarines, and even an eccentric shark-sighting expedition involving the rapper Macklemore.

These videos depict a company that operates with remarkable speed. OceanGate’s primary focus was disrupting ocean exploration by claiming their technology was so groundbreaking that widely accepted safety standards became obsolete. The company is an integral part of the “Blue Economy,” a term coined by investors to describe startups aiming to profit from the vast unexplored potential of the world’s oceans, which they believe are largely under-commercialized.

“One of the ways we’re able to support this kind of scientific research is by finding different ways to fund it. So from an OceanGate Expeditions perspective, we can take media, as we’ll do this year and we did last year, and film these wrecks and these locations, and we can bring people who will be willing to help fund the operation to participate. And that gives us a completely different way to fund this and be able to go back to the Titanic and other sites every year, which is very unusual in the deep ocean”

Rush said during a science briefing for the 2022 Titanic expedition.

OceanGate’s Titan submersible boasts an array of advanced features, including cameras, oceanographic equipment, and an innovative “eDNA” tool designed for collecting DNA from environmental samples. During a briefing, Steven Ross, OceanGate’s chief scientist and a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, emphasized that their approach to exploring the wreck would prioritize non-destructiveness and minimal impact. The submersible’s high-definition cameras and instruments were expected to yield a substantial amount of valuable scientific data.

Stockton Rush in front of the OceanGate

However, despite these lofty scientific aspirations, Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, revealed that the primary objective was efficiency and avoiding bureaucratic hurdles. Rush expressed hope that this approach would enable them to expand their explorations to numerous other sites, allowing them to engage multi-disciplinary researchers without the extensive delays often associated with grant applications and administrative processes.

OceanGate’s early YouTube videos predominantly showcased their submersibles being tested in relatively shallow depths, mainly in tropical locations like the Bahamas. These videos also featured captivating footage of underwater wildlife. However, in recent years, the company shifted towards producing more polished videos that heavily emphasized their deep-sea dives, which inherently carried greater risks.

The transition from shallow to deep-water exploration is not a trivial matter. During a 2017 lecture at the Explorer’s Club in New York City, Rush emphasized the critical consideration of avoiding depths that exceed the crush depth of the submersible, as surpassing this limit poses significant dangers.

Wreck diving, such as the type conducted by OceanGate at the Titanic, belongs to a distinct and specialized category of diving. As depth increases, the process becomes increasingly complex and perilous. The presence of a sunken vessel further compounds the inherent risks involved in such expeditions.

OceanGate’s promotional YouTube videos prioritize highlighting the purported safety of their dives to the Titanic wreckage site. Advertisements for the 2023 Titanic expedition emphasize OceanGate Expeditions’ commitment to providing customers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to safely explore the depths of the ocean as specially-trained crew members. The ad echoes the imagination of Jules Verne, inviting viewers to embark on a remarkable 12,500-foot journey to the sea’s floor.

This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. In a race against the clock on the high seas, an expanding international armada of ships and airplanes searched Tuesday, June 20, 2023, for the submersible that vanished in the North Atlantic while taking five people down to the wreck of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)

Testimonials featured in the advertisement contribute to the assurance of safety. Chelsea Kellogg, OceanGate’s master chef, expresses complete confidence in the company’s submersible, stating that she has never felt unsafe during her experiences with OceanGate. The video also highlights the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the company, including comprehensive safety checks before each dive and additional checks after resurfacing to prepare for subsequent teams.

However, amidst the emphasis on safety, certain aspects of the advertisement hint at the inherent risks involved. Aaron Newman, a software security expert, candidly acknowledges that the experience is not comparable to a Disney ride, underscoring the real risks and challenges inherent in such deep-sea exploration.

Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut and member of OceanGate’s board of directors, further emphasizes the complexities of the venture. He highlights the multitude of factors that need to align seamlessly, such as the proper functioning of electrical and navigation systems, underscoring the intricacy of operating the submersible.

“It’s not a ride at Disney. There’s a lot of real risk involved. There’s a lot of challenges.”

While OceanGate’s promotional materials strive to assure potential customers of their commitment to safety, the acknowledgment of inherent risks and complexities serves as a reminder that deep-sea exploration is not without its challenges.

According to a statement from APL executive director Kevin Williams, APL-UW staff collaborated with OceanGate on the development of their shallow-diving submersible named CYCLOPS, capable of reaching depths of 500 meters (0.3 miles). The partnership between the university and OceanGate concluded with the completion of CYCLOPS, which served as a testing platform for the company since 2015. However, APL-UW was not involved in the design, engineering, or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition.

UW spokesperson Victor Balta added that while an initial $5 million research collaborative agreement was signed between APL and OceanGate, only $650,000 worth of work was completed before the two organizations parted ways.

In a 2022 press release, OceanGate acknowledged NASA’s expertise in composite hulls, attributing the weight reduction of the experimental Titan craft to the utilization of aerospace-grade carbon fiber and manufacturing protocols. This weight reduction allowed for a greater payload capacity, accommodating five crew members comprising a pilot, researchers, and mission specialists.

Construction of Titan commenced in 2017, and the submersible was launched in 2018. While NASA records indicate collaboration with OceanGate on “automated fiber placement development” through a Space Act Agreement in 2020, there are no records of collaboration between 2016 and 2020.

“Lochridge was repeatedly told that no scan of the hull or Bond Line could be done to check for delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull. Lochridge was told that no form of equipment existed to perform such a test”

Diagram giving a closer look at the Titan Submersible.
Diagram giving a closer look at the Titan Submersible.

Despite the involvement of external experts, it appears that the experimental hull of Titan was not subjected to thorough safety testing. Former director of marine operations at OceanGate, David Lochridge, claimed in court filings that he was terminated after expressing concerns about inadequate hull testing. Lochridge alleged that certain tests, including scanning the hull or performing a bond line check for delaminations and defects, were not conducted, citing the lack of equipment for such assessments.

Navies that prioritize risk mitigation follow different procedures, as explained by Ballantyne. Military submarine hulls require flawless welds performed by highly skilled shipyard workers, with X-ray inspections conducted to ensure structural integrity. Regular monitoring and extensive dockyard refits are carried out to ensure long-term operational safety. As vessels age, there is an increased need for thorough inspections and refits, which demand more time and resources.

Following Rush’s speech during the christening ceremony in April 2018, he turned to Tony Nissen, OceanGate’s director of engineering, who stood behind him. Nissen hesitated momentarily while holding the bottle, appearing slightly unnatural, before exclaiming, “And with this, I hereby christen Titan!” He then forcefully smashed the bottle against Titan, shattering it. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

As mentioned in the description of the YouTube video documenting the christening, this maritime tradition is believed to bring good luck and ensure safe travels for the vessel.

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