OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, left, chats with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle during a 2019 Cyclops dive. (GeekWire File Photo / Kevin Lisota)

[Update, Thursday, June 22: Underwater robot searching for missing OceanGate sub spots debris field near Titanic wreck.]

The Titan submersible that has gone missing near the wreck of the Titanic isn’t the only sub in OceanGate’s fleet: Back in 2019, the company took me down to the bottom of Puget Sound in a sub called Cyclops.

Almost four years later, it’s eerie to be keeping track of a far more dramatic dive that has put the Titan’s five crew members in mortal peril. One of those crew members is OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who was my guide for the three-hour tour of Possession Sound, a pocket of Puget Sound not far from the company’s HQ in Everett, Wash.

At the time, OceanGate was coping with some logistical complications that forced a postponement of its first planned series of Titan dives to the Titanic, more than 12,500 feet beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean. The company was also gearing up for stress tests of Titan’s hull. (Those tests ended up identifying structural shortcomings that needed to be addressed.)

In the meantime, Rush and his team took on underwater projects that were closer to home and within the technical capabilities of Cyclops 1, the five-person submersible that was a precursor for Titan. (OceanGate also has an older sub called Antipodes, which looks a bit like the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.)

OceanGate used Cyclops that summer to take researchers to the bottom of Puget Sound for marine biology surveys conducted in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. GeekWire photographer Kevin Lisota and I were invited to ride along on a sunny day in August.

Cyclops weighs almost as much as Titan (20,000 pounds vs. 23,000 pounds), and they’re about the same size (22 feet long and roughly 9 feet wide). But Cyclops is rated for depths only up to 1,640 feet (500 meters), while Titan was designed to take on Titanic depths. That means Titan had to be built from sterner stuff. For example, where Cyclops provided a glassy dome with an all-around view of the waters beyond, Titan had to make do with a foot-wide viewport ringed by titanium.

Some of the technological shortcuts that have come in for criticism during Titan’s troubles were pioneered on Cyclops. We sat on the floor of the cramped submersible in our stocking feet, and Titan’s crews do likewise. Cyclops’ thruster system is steered using a PlayStation 3 video-game controller, which was upgraded to a Logitech gamepad for Titan.

One of the controller’s joysticks determines where Cyclops’ vertically oriented, electrically powered thrusters are pointing, and the other controls the horizontal thrusters. A couple of buttons are programmed to serve as “dead man’s switches” that have to be pressed to activate the joysticks.

The idea behind the system is to reduce the complexity and the costs that are typically associated with building submersibles.

When Rush let me have a turn at the controls, he made certain that Cyclops was floating over a muddy stretch of the bottom, with no rocks in sight.

“It’s pretty fun,” I told Rush.

The down side is that I’m typically all thumbs when it comes to manual dexterity — and sure enough, I stirred up a cloud of sediment as I jiggled the joysticks. Rush took back the controller just as we approached a tree stump that was colonized by a clump of anemones.

“Imagine trying to find this if you were diving. … Nobody’s ever seen this log before, I’ll bet you even money,” Rush told me. As we roamed along the bottom, at depths as low as 350 feet, we caught sight of rockfish, prawns, crabs and pint-sized sharks.

The video displays are bigger on Titan, and its crews have access to a toilet with a curtain that can be drawn closed to provide a smidgen of privacy. But from what I can tell, the Titan experience is similar to the Cyclops experience — except for the longer duration, the deeper water, the more exotic sights and the bigger risk.

When Titan lost contact with the surface on Sunday, its crew members were headed for waters more than 35 times deeper than the depths we reached in Cyclops.

Even though we were always much closer to the surface, it felt good to climb out into the sunshine after spending a few hours in the greenish gloom of Puget Sound’s depths. I can only hope that Rush and his crewmates make it through this week’s ordeal and get a similar feeling of relief — multiplied 35 times.

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