Titan Submersible, Part 2-3: They should have seen it coming

Mistakes compounded on misakes

The one investor presentation I would love to see is the one from the January 2020 round of funding at OceanGate. What promises and projections did OceanGate have to make to entice investors to fund the deal?

Since the company was already taking customers on dives, but just not to Titanic depths, this felt like a round of funding to refine the product and move into the big time by offering Titanic visits. It did not have the feel of a round of research and development funding, in which the company would come back with a prototype or test vehicle in a few years.

In essence, after accepting the 2020 funding, the company was now under the gun to deliver those Titanic trips, one way or another. This is where quick and dirty thinking sealed the fate of OceanGate, Rush, and the four passengers on Titan. 

In speaking with reporter David Pogue, who went on a previous Titan voyage, Rush said, “at some point, safety is just a pure waste.” Surely these remarks are taken somewhat out of context, but it does indicate the attitude OceanGate had regarding safety. 

After his trip, Pogue commented to a USA Today reporter: “Some of the ballasts are old, rusty construction pipes. There were certain things that looked like cut corners.”

Rush’s competitors and colleagues pleaded with him to slow down and have his new design classified because there had not been a fatality on a commercially operated submersible in more than 60 years and what’s bad for OceanGate is bad for the industry.

And this is not after-the-fact CYA. There is a letter to Rush signed by a few dozen members of the Marine Technology Society (the industry group for submersibles) imploring Rush to have his design classified.

This letter was written in 2018, five years before the catastrophe and around the time that OceanGate realized its then-current design would not hold up to Titanic depths and needed to raise more money.

Rush’s response to these criticisms was that he was doing something new and different and classification agencies and unnecessary safety standards only slowed things down. He did, however, stop using phrases like “Titan meets or exceeds classification standards from DNV.”  (DNV is one of the leading classification organizations.)

He also boasted that Titan was designed in conjunction with NASA and the University of Washington. Neither organization confirmed any involvement with OceanGate beyond OceanGate’s purchase of excess carbon fiber from NASA. This brings us back to the question of why was he in such a hurry and why all the hype when dealing with a device that put his and others’ lives at risk? Was it pressure to deliver for those pesky investors?

After its original carbon-fiber hull design showed signs of weakening at less-than-Titanic depths, OceanGate raised its big round of funding but stayed with carbon-fiber as the hull material.  A word about carbon fiber:

Carbon fiber is the ultimate high-strength lightweight material and is used in the construction of automobile frames, aircraft parts, and a variety of sports equipment like bicycles, canoes, tennis racquets, helmets, and golf clubs. It is truly a miracle of modern engineering; but it has never really been tested as a material to withstand the crushing pressure that occurs at Titanic depths.

Carbon fiber also brings down the overall cost of building and operating a submersible. All the other deep-water subs are made of much heavier steel and/or titanium and are constructed as spheres since the combination of materials and shape provide the greatest ability to withstand the pressure created by thousands of feet of ocean depth. But such a design is not ideal for tourism.

The OceanGate design was cylindrical and was like sitting in the fuselage of a small passenger plane, had a toilet, and could fit five passengers. Also, the lighter weight of Titan kept costs down since it did not require the bigger hosting ships with more sophisticated lifting mechanisms needed by the titanium vessels. (In fact, the hosting ship for Titan actually towed Titan to the destination, which is unusual since most submersibles sit atop the deck on the ship and are hoisted up and down out of the water.)

After the funding, OceanGate went ahead with its updated carbon-fiber hull and aggressive schedule to get to Titanic depths. Previous passengers on Titan mentioned how Rush was proud that he was using a re-purposed gaming console for control of the sub. Versions of gaming consoles are used on some Navy ships and submarines, but only for specific functions. There were no standard communications with the surface, but text messages were used instead. There were few redundancies in Titan’s systems and on a prior voyage, passengers were instructed to rock back and forth to help the sub drop its weights so it could re-surface.

These shortcuts and bad judgements started a cascade of errors that could not be reversed.


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