OceanGate tows its Titan submersible out from the company’s home base in Everett, Wash., for a test in Puget Sound in preparation for its first Titanic dive in 2021. (OceanGate Photo)

It’s too soon to answer all the questions raised by this week’s loss of OceanGate’s Titan submersible and its five-person crew during their dive to the Titanic shipwreck — but the questions are being asked nevertheless.

An international team led by the U.S. Coast Guard is still surveying the site in the wake of Thursday’s determination that the sub, built by Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate, was destroyed due to the catastrophic collapse of its pressure chamber. A remotely operated vehicle identified debris from the sub scattered just 1,600 feet from the Titanic’s iconic bow.

Some of the ships and planes that were involved in the search have left the scene, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, but others are continuing to survey a stretch of seafloor 12,500 feet beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. It’s a hard-to-reach region that now serves as the graveyard for two at-sea disasters.

“We will do the best we can to fully map what’s down there,” Paul Hankins, the director of the U.S. Navy’s salvage operations, said during the news briefing announcing the Titan’s destruction.

Titan was deployed from its support ship, the Polar Prince, on Sunday morning and fell out of contact about an hour and 45 minutes after the dive began. Authorities were alerted to the sub’s disappearance on Sunday night and began the search on Monday. It took until late Wednesday for ROVs capable of reaching the seafloor to arrive on the scene.

The Coast Guard will lead the investigation into what has now been designated a major marine casualty, with the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies playing a supporting role. The fact that the tragedy took place in international waters is likely to complicate the investigation.

Investigators will focus on the debris — which includes the titanium front end of the pressure chamber as well as the back end. A close analysis of imagery from the ROVs could help experts reconstruct how the crushing pressures of the deep ocean caused the hull to implode.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger declined to say how much of the debris — or the remains of the crew — could be brought up to the surface. “It’s an incredibly unforgiving environment down there on the seafloor. … I don’t have an answer for the prospects at this time,” he said.

Among the dead are OceanGate’s co-founder and CEO, Stockton Rush; veteran Titanic diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet; British aviation executive Hamish Harding; and Pakistani business executive Shahzara Dawood and his 19-year-old son, Suleman. All five were mourned by family, friends and public officials.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted his condolences to the crew’s families and gave a nod of respect to the Coast Guard. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes OceanGate’s HQ, said his heart “breaks for the victims, their loved ones and the OceanGate family.”

OceanGate: Office ‘closed indefinitely’

OceanGate said in a statement that its employees were “exhausted and grieving deeply over the loss.” The Everett office would “remain closed indefinitely while the staff copes with the tragic loss of their team member,” the company said.

The websites for OceanGate and for OceanGate Expeditions, the sister company that was in charge of the Titanic tours, were not fully operational as the week drew to a close.

Stockton Rush co-founded OceanGate in 2009. The other co-founder, Guillermo Söhnlein, moved on to other pursuits after four years at the company. As of 2017, Pitchbook estimated OceanGate’s valuation at $60 million. During a funding round in 2020, OceanGate raised $18.1 million from 22 investors. That was at a time when OceanGate was gearing up for the start of Titan’s trips.

OceanGate also received about $450,000 in pandemic-related federal PPP loans in 2020 that were forgiven, according to ProPublica.

It’s not clear who will lead the closely held company in the wake of Stockton Rush’s death. OceanGate’s workforce is in the range of 40 to 60 employees, according to LinkedIn. Rush’s widow, Wendy Rush, is listed as the company’s communications director. (For what it’s worth, Wendy Rush’s ancestors include a couple who died along with more than 1,500 others in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The couple’s story was fictionalized for the movie “Titanic.”)

The company still owns two subs — Cyclops 1 and Antipodes — but Titan was the big attraction, because it was the only OceanGate vessel capable of going deeper than 500 meters (1,640 feet). Before this week’s tragedy, OceanGate was offering trips to the Titanic and to the Azores in 2024 at a list price of $250,000 per seat. What happens to the money paid for future trips? Add that to the list of not-yet-answerable questions.

OceanGate’s customers signed waivers informing them of the deadly risks they’d face during their Titanic adventures, and that means surviving family members will face high legal hurdles if they decide to seek damages. Legal experts say claimants would have to show that OceanGate was grossly negligent.

OceanGate CEO provides a tour of the Cyclops 1 submersible in 2018. (GeekWire Video)

Regulations: Likely to be tightened

Even before the Coast Guard confirmed that Titan was destroyed by the collapse of its hull, questions were being raised about the submersible’s safety.

OceanGate pioneered the use of carbon composite in place of metal for a sub’s pressure hull, taking advantage of a technology used by Virgin Galactic for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket ship (and by Boeing for its 787 Dreamliner jet). The idea was that because composite is lighter than steel or titanium, that would free up more weight for, say, a five-person crew rather than the traditional one to three.

But could the hull stand up to the pressure at Titanic depths? In 2018, representatives of the marine technology industry sent Rush a letter warning that the experimental nature of OceanGate’s operations could lead to negative outcomes ranging “from minor to catastrophic.”

In legal documents filed that same year, a fired employee complained that the hull was not adequately tested. OceanGate and the employee settled their dispute, and subsequent testing confirmed that the hull couldn’t be rated for trips to the Titanic. OceanGate arranged for the fabrication of a new hull, in consultation with NASA.

OceanGate also developed what it said was a real-time monitoring system that used sensors to alert Titan’s pilot in case stresses on the hull exceeded a specified limit. However, the company resisted going through the full process of having its compliance with shipping standards checked by an outside authority.

“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” OceanGate said in a 2019 blog posting.

Because the trips to the Titanic took place in international waters, they were not subject to U.S. regulations — and in the waivers that customers were required to sign, OceanGate made sure that was disclosed.

Regulations are likely to get tighter in the future, said Robert Mester, founder and senior salvage master at Northwest Maritime Associates. The fact that the NTSB is getting involved in the accident investigation is a good sign, he told MSNBC.

“In the future, these types of missions that will be carrying people for a fee need to have some kind of regulations, and it’s the government for the United States stepping in to finally say, yeah, we need to take a look at this and find out really what went wrong,” he said.

Peter Goetz, former managing director of the NTSB, told CNN that future undersea explorers may be required to purchase recovery insurance in order to cover the costs of a massive search-and-rescue operation like the one sparked by Titan’s disappearance.

The issue is certain to come up in the course of future congressional hearings.

Implications: What now for the final frontiers?

The Titan disaster won’t stop underwater exploration, but it’s likely to give would-be citizen explorers something more to think about.

“Titanic” film director James Cameron, who has been on more than 30 dives to the Titanic and other deep-ocean destinations, told Reuters that he wished that he had spoken out sooner about his concerns relating to the Titan sub.

“I thought it was a horrible idea. I wish I’d spoken up, but I assumed somebody was smarter than me, you know, because I never experimented with that technology. But it just sounded bad on its face,” Cameron said.

During a CNN interview, Cameron said the tragedy could have a long-term impact. “I’m not worried about exploration, because explorers will go,” he said. “I’m worried that it has a negative impact on, let’s say, citizen explorers, tourists. … These are serious people with serious curiosity willing to put serious money down to go to these interesting places — and I don’t want to discourage that.”

Söhnlein, however, told CNN that Cameron’s worries might be premature. “I kind of again wish we would hold off judgment and see exactly what the data comes back with,” OceanGate’s surviving co-founder said.

Will this week’s tragedy on the deep-sea frontier have an effect on the market for trips to the space frontier, currently offered by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX? One of the Titan crew members, Hamish Harding, took a trip just last year on Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship.

In a commentary written for Space News, space policy consultant Brendan Curry said “those working in the emergent private space travel industry should pay close attention.”

Commercial human spaceflight is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration under special rules that apply for a “learning period” that’s currently due to end in October. Those rules give commercial space operators more leeway to fly paying passengers, as long as those passengers are informed of the risks and give their consent. The FAA also requires operators to tell their crew and spaceflight participants that the agency hasn’t certified their vehicles as safe.

Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, is familiar with the risks on the deep-sea frontier as well as on the space frontier. He went on one of OceanGate’s trips to the Titanic last year, and he’s due to take a suborbital space trip with Virgin Galactic once that company ramps up commercial operations.

Stern said he accepted the risks that came with a trip on Titan.

“I wouldn’t have gone with OceanGate if I didn’t think it was basically safe,” he told GeekWire. “You would be foolhardy to do that. And I did a fair amount of due diligence, calling up people who had already been on OceanGate Expeditions, who are not part of the company, and asking them about their experiences.”

But Stern said there was a “night-and-day” difference between OceanGate and commercial space operators.

“I have nothing but good things to say about what I experienced with OceanGate,” he said. “I don’t mean to demean them. But these organizations — that have thousands of engineers and technicians, like a Virgin Galactic or a Blue Origin — are a completely different operation from a couple of dozen people in a small family business, which is what OceanGate was.”

Stern said he hoped there’d always be room in the exploration business for companies like OceanGate as well as for companies like Blue Origin.

“What OceanGate was doing was a noble cause in exploration. It was producing some good for society, not just for the people who paid for it, but the educators and researchers like myself, who they took along at zero cost to do archaeology, to do ocean biology, to do some other kinds of science, or to be educators. They even took artists to communicate to the public about the deep ocean,” he said.

“They’re very sensitive to raising awareness about the ocean and its fragile ecosystems,” Stern said. “I think the kind of work that they were doing has been a strong positive for society. And I hope it continues.”

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