Learning from Titan’s Tragedy

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Uncovering the engineering oversights, questionable business decisions, and ethical malpractice of OceanGate that led to the ill-fated Titan submersible implosion.


 

In the haunting depths of the North Atlantic Ocean, a daring expedition to explore the wreckage of the Titanic unravelled into an unimaginable catastrophe. From engineering challenges and safety concerns that plagued its development to the questionable business decisions and ethical implications that risked the lives of passengers, the expedition was a harrowing tale of a venture that went awry.

A Dangerous Prospect

In June 2023, the world stood witness to a devastating maritime catastrophe that sent shockwaves through the deep-sea exploration community. OceanGate’s ambitious submersible, the Titan, disappeared during an expedition to explore the wreckage of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean. This ill-fated mission gripped global attention as search teams raced against time to find the lost vessel and its occupants.

OceanGate, a company founded in 2009 by Stockton Rush III, aimed to push the boundaries of deep-sea exploration, opening up the enigmatic depths of the ocean to a select group of adventurous individuals. Rush, an aerospace engineer and pilot brought his passion for innovation and aviation expertise into the realm of underwater exploration. The Titanic, a haunting relic resting nearly 4,000 meters below the ocean’s surface, served as a symbol of the extraordinary possibilities that lay in the dark abyss.

The allure of the Titanic’s wreckage was irresistible to wealthy thrill-seekers, and OceanGate saw an opportunity to cater to this niche market. For the past three years, the company charged exorbitant fees, reaching up to USD 250,000 per person, for a chance to witness the historic tragedy firsthand. The promise of an unprecedented journey into the past drew enthusiasts from around the world, eager to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. However, long before the Titan’s final dive, experts both inside and outside the company raised serious concerns about the submersible’s safety and readiness for such a perilous expedition.

 

 

Engineering Malpractice

As OceanGate’s ambitious mission to explore the Titanic’s wreckage captured the imagination of the world, the journey into the depths was fraught with engineering challenges and safety concerns. Technical complexities accompanied the development of the Titan yet safety implications were completely overlooked. The Titan’s design incorporated carbon fibre as a structural material. While carbon fibre is renowned for its strength-to-weight ratio, making it a staple in aerospace applications, it presents unique challenges for submersible vessels. Large carbon fibre structures, such as the Titan’s pressure vessel, require meticulous bonding and vacuum impregnation. The integrity of the vessel’s structure is optimised with the right choice of material, usually titanium, which works well under compression. But carbon fibre works well under tension, for example, in aerospace applications where parts to ‘bend’ or ‘twist’. Therefore, for deep sea explorations, carbon fibre is a questionable material choice since the deeper a vessel goes, it faces virtually no tension and only compression. Pressure builds up on every square inch of the vessel, and if the material is not strong enough to counter the pressure, the risk of buckling and developing fractures increases drastically.


Central to the safety concerns raised was OceanGate’s decision not to seek certification from leading agencies, such as DNV (Det Norske Veritas), known for their expertise in assessing submersible safety. The absence of third-party validation left experts and potential passengers uneasy about the experimental nature of the craft.


Gross Negligence

OceanGate claimed the Titan was built in collaboration with experts from NASA, Boeing and the University of Washington. However, all three parties stated that they had no involvement with Titan in the way it was communicated by Stockton Rush, that is, in the design, engineering, testing, or building of the submersible.

Central to the safety concerns raised was OceanGate’s decision not to seek certification from leading agencies, such as DNV (Det Norske Veritas), known for their expertise in assessing submersible safety. The absence of third-party validation left experts and potential passengers uneasy about the experimental nature of the craft. Compounded by the fact that the viewport, which allowed passengers to view the outside world, was only certified for depths far shallower than those required for the Titanic mission, the lack of adherence to rigorous safety standards raised serious questions about passenger safety.

In January 2018, OceanGate’s director of marine operations, David Lochridge, sounded an alarm, emphasising the need for more testing and highlighting potential dangers as the submersible approached extreme depths and made large cracking noises. Soon after, more than three dozen industry leaders, deep-sea explorers, and oceanographers penned a letter to OceanGate’s CEO urgently warning about the company’s ‘experimental’ approach and the decision to forgo a traditional assessment. They cautioned that such a reckless path could lead to potentially catastrophic problems during the Titanic mission. The experts’ concerns were centred around the company’s refusal to have the Titan inspected and certified by reputable agencies that specialise in assessing the safety of submersibles. These warnings were ignored and OceanGate’s reluctance to follow standard classification guidelines raised more red flags.

 

 

Ethical Misconduct

Behind the grand endeavour to explore the Titanic’s resting place lay a series of questionable business decisions that forwent ethical responsibilities and chased profitability. Rush’s vision of offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences to affluent adventurers came with the contentious issue of commercialising a tragedy. The Titanic’s sinking in 1912 was a human catastrophe, claiming over 1,500 lives. Turning this solemn event into a high-priced tourist attraction sparked debates about preserving historical sites versus capitalising on human suffering. As the business sought to monetise the Titanic’s legacy, questions emerged about the commodification of history and the potential disrespect to the memory of those who perished.

Putting aside the profiteering off of a historic tragedy, one of the most critical ethical questions revolves around the miscommunication of safety concerns and the cost-cutting measures undertaken by OceanGate. As individuals paid substantial sums for the experience of a lifetime, they were entitled to full disclosure about the experimental nature of the submersible and any potential risks associated with the mission. OceanGate’s non-liability agreement disclosed that the vessel has no third-party certification, but prior to that, Rush had time and again claimed that the vessel was structurally sound, and the reason for not pursuing certification was due to the industry’s procedures being slow, inefficient, misguided, and incorrect.

Rush was firm on his stance going as far as to claim that virtually all deep-sea exploration accidents, even those that were done using certified vessels were due to operator error. Rush himself was the pilot of the Titan, and ensured that there would be no error on his part during the exploration, therefore all risks were negated. Experts weighed in on this observation as well explaining that Rush was inferring from statistical bias and misleading the industry. Effectively, the certified vessels could only have failed due to operator error as structurally they were more than capable of handling deep sea pressures. Rush publicly brushed off these concerns stating that these objections get in the way of innovation, and it was on him to prove them wrong. But not many are convinced that this was in pursuit of advancing engineering as much as it was to further his business.


The experts’ concerns were centred around the company’s refusal to have the Titan inspected and certified by reputable agencies that specialise in assessing the safety of submersibles. These warnings were ignored and OceanGate’s reluctance to follow standard classification guidelines raised more red flags.


Hindsight and Takeaways

The devastating loss of the Titan submersible and its occupants has left an indelible mark on the deep-sea exploration industry. As the world mourns the lives lost and reflects on the ethical implications, there are vital lessons to be learned and transformative steps to be taken as the industry moves forward.

The foremost lesson learned from the Titanic tragedy is the paramount importance of safety. Engineering standards that are followed today are the results of decades of research and findings, with the sole purpose of protecting not only the interest but the lives of stakeholders. As a result, many have questioned how the Titan was allowed to go into a deep sea dive mission in the first place while it was public knowledge that it was a mistake waiting to happen. The simple answer is that Rush operated in international waters where no country had jurisdiction. So, the question now becomes, how can people like Rush be stopped from endangering the lives of others in the name of profit? This is where transparency and disclosure factor in. Passengers and stakeholders deserve comprehensive information about the risks involved in such ventures instead of being lured into the fame and glory aspect of it.

The social commentaries that have emerged criticising groundbreaking innovations as being too fixated on recognition should not act as a deterrent to progress and innovation. The Titanic mission serves as a poignant reminder of the inherent risks in exploratory ventures, but instead of shying away from these failures, the industry should embrace them as opportunities for growth and improvement. Through comprehensive analysis and investigation, lessons can be drawn to prevent future calamities. Exploratory missions, first and foremost, should contribute to scientific research, conservation, and understanding rather than being prioritised for commercial pursuits.

The Titan’s fateful journey to the ocean’s depths serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges and responsibilities entailed in deep-sea exploration. As the industry forges a new path forward, it must internalise the lessons learned, embrace safety and transparency, and collaborate to advance the frontiers of knowledge while safeguarding human life. With collective determination, innovation, and ethical awareness, the odyssey to unravel the mysteries of the deep ocean can continue, marked by a steadfast commitment to honouring the past and securing the future.

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