OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, left, in one of his company's submersibles
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, left, in one of his company's submersibles (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Stockton Rush, the Pilot of Missing Titanic Sub, Told Outside Why He Kept Going Back

In an exclusive interview with Outside for a story last year, Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate and the pilot of the missing Titanic submersible, explained the reasons behind his costly expeditions, why he included paying tourists, and why ocean exploration was worth it

OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, left, in one of his company's submersibles
Wilfredo Lee/AP

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While researching an Outside story on high-end adventure tourism, I spoke twice by Zoom with Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, once in 2021 and again in 2022. The company is located in Everett, 25 miles north of Seattle.

Energetic and passionate, Rush talked about the need to advance the world’s oceanic knowledge and why he was pursuing deep-sea tourism as a business. A picture of an OceanGate submersible cockpit served as his video-chat background, giving him the appearance of taking my calls from the helm of his fleet.

Rush and four others disappeared in the Titan on Sunday, June 18, during a dive to see the historic wreck of the Titanic. A fervent search-and-rescue mission ensued across an area about 900 miles off the coast of Cape Cod—in a region often referred to as twice the size of Connecticut—as the sub’s final hours of oxygen were believed to be dwindling.

In an update at 3 P.M. ET on June 22, Coast Guard officials announced that a “catastrophic implosion,” which instantly killed all the passengers, occurred in the submersible, and offered “heartfelt condolences.” Debris from the submersible was found on a smooth section of sea floor 1,600 feet off the bow of the Titanic by a remotely operated vehicle searching the site.

Three adventurers were onboard with Rush: British businessman and explorer Hamish Harding, and Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son, Suleman. The French maritime expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet was also onboard, serving as the sub’s Titanic expert after more than 35 dives to the wreck.

While marine rescue is never simple, Titan’s depth complicated this mission even more. The Titanic rests 12,500 feet deep, so it took two-and-a-half hours for his sub just to reach the wreckage, Rush told me.

“I like to say that if you stopped someone on the street and said name three things in the deep ocean, they’re gonna say sharks, whales, and the Titanic. Everything else is a distant second,” Rush told me.

What We Know About Stockton Rush, OceanGate CEO

Rush, 61, graduated from Princeton in 1984 with a degree in aerospace engineering. He had become the world’s youngest jet-transport rated pilot at age 19, and went on to build his own Glasair III experimental aircraft in ’89—the same year he earned an MBA from U.C. Berkeley. Rush led several successful IP ventures over the subsequent decades and served on the board of multiple tech companies. He married Wendy Rush, also a Princeton ’84 graduate, who works as communications director at OceanGate. In an uncanny coincidence, Wendy is the descendant of the married couple Isidor and Ida Straus, who died in the Titanic sinking in 1912.

How Rush Launched His OceanGate Business

When Rush recognized in his 40s that he would never achieve his dream of being the first person to walk on Mars, he told FastCompany in 2017, he turned his attention to the sea. He then built his own submersible (which he dived in over 30 times). In 2009, he founded OceanGate, to conduct commercial research and exploration. Moving sub research and development into the private sector, Rush aimed to bring down the cost of deep-sea exploration and to make it more accessible to scientists and researchers. On most trips, scientists are on board. OceanGate has provided grants for scientific and archaeological marine research through its foundation.

While OceanGate has offered other underwater exploration trips, like to the hydrothermal vents of the Azores, the Titanic expeditions have been the company’s marquee project. Fusing research and tourism, missions discovered a deep-sea reef and another shipwreck, collected environmental DNA, and captured the first 8K footage of the Titanic (see video below). Private individuals have paid $250,000 to take part in the trips, helping underwrite the cost of the research. Hamish Harding,  Shahzada Dawood and his son, Suleman, were such participants.

The Titan was one of very few vessels capable of reaching these depths with humans on board. The only other one in operation is The Limiting Factor, which was until recently owned by Victor Vescovo. The Deepsea Challenger, the submersible that James Cameron went down in to see the Titanic, was damaged in a highway fire in 2015.

When we talked, Rush was frank that his company pushed the boundaries of underwater exploration.

“Nargelot made a comment to somebody that every deep diving submarine is a prototype, that they haven’t made more than one of all of them,” Rush told me last year. “The first year we had prototype issues, we had some equipment problems. We had some tracking and communications problems. We overcame those, and by the end got to the Titanic and took a bunch of people down.”

As many are questioning the ethics of deep-sea tourism and safety issues with the design of Titan’s carbon fiber hull—and as we await the results of the ongoing investigation about what happened—here are Rush’s thoughts from our conversations about diving the Titanic.

OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush with one of his company's submersibles off the coast of Florida in 2013
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush with one of his company’s submersibles off the coast of Florida in 2013

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It includes comments from my conversations with Rush in March 2021 and September 2022.

Outside: Why visit the Titanic? Why do these expeditions?

Rush: The Titanic is just such a unique thing underwater. I like to say that if you stopped someone on the street and said name three things in the deep ocean, they’re gonna say sharks, whales, and the Titanic. Everything else is a distant second.

There are some other great wrecks that we hope to go see, and there are great wrecks we’ve seen before. But the Titanic really has captured the world’s imagination, and it is the pinnacle of things underwater at this time. And it’s a proven site that people want to visit. When the Russians were in need of hard cash, they did some tourist trips out to the Titanic. James Cameron went to it [numerous] times. There’s some history about people wanting to go see it.

Equally important is, it’s decaying and nobody really knows how fast. So there’s a lot of science that hasn’t been able to be done on the Titanic. Past exercises in tourism didn’t do any science, and ours is all going to be focused on not just the decay of the Titanic, but also looking at the biology. There are hundreds of species that have only been found on the Titanic wreck.

The short answer to your questions is the Titanic draws attention. It’s a great research component. It’s basically an artificial reef in the abyssal plain, and what life forms are there? What fish and corals and the like is a huge question. And it’s decaying and we don’t know how fast.

What are the scientific objectives?

They’re twofold. There’s an archeological component. The fundamental question is the one everyone wants to know: When is the thing going to collapse? … It’s being eaten by bacteria that are literally eating the steel, eating the iron. So with the laser scaler, we’ve been able to take measurements of the expansion joint that was in the ship as well as the starboard crack…I’d say the number-one [archeological] goal, other than to document its current state, is to come up with a better answer to how long it will be recognizable. That’s how I like to define it, because it will always be an artificial reef.

The biological objectives are longer term, and that’s really where we’re focusing. How does that as an artificial reef compare to other structures around the Titanic that don’t have this metal structure there? And how is that changing? How are these creatures growing and being colonized? How are they colonizing other sites nearby?

One of the key elements of the Titanic that I get is: Why do we go back to the Titanic? We’ve been there a lot, and it has been visited a lot. But what’s amazing is, there are very, very few sites—a handful, probably—that get visited more than once, when you get down to this kind of depth, more than 3,000 meters. There’s so much to be explored that if you’re a typical research organization, you’re just going to go to a hydrothermal vent, you’re going to analyze it, you’re gonna go to another one. Or you’re going to go to a subsea canyon and document the flora and fauna. But you’re not gonna go back again, because there are so many other sites to go to.

Because people want to go to the Titanic, it’s a very unique opportunity, because they’re going to pay us to go there. And now we can go every year. I don’t think there’s anywhere else on planet Earth at that depth where you’re gonna be able to take researchers every year to get that kind of granular data: ‘Hey, this type of coral is more prevalent, here it’s not.’ That’s quite relevant, because there are a million shipwrecks, and there are tens of thousands that are in the deep ocean from World War II. We really don’t know their impact and how they’re affecting the ecosystem. The scientists are pretty excited, because you just don’t get that opportunity.

Given the scientific aspect of your expeditions, why involve Mission Specialists (what OceanGate calls the paying tourists)?

I started OceanGate back in 2009, with the idea that there were two needs out there.

The first one was, we knew very little about the ocean. Our knowledge of the ocean, particularly the deep ocean, anything below scuba-diving depth—it’s sad, very sad, how small it is. It’s getting better, and there are a lot of efforts to increase ocean knowledge, but we don’t have it. And there were researchers who wanted to go and actually see the environment in person, not just look at an image from a robot.

So you had on the research side a huge need. But subs were expensive. I knew from my own personal travel experience that there was also this growing market of people who want to do a different type of travel. In particular, I looked at Earthwatch and how they were able to get people to pay to work on archeological digs. They had the same kind of thing: a great need for manpower to dig an archaeological site and help fund it and a research need. So I thought in the ocean, maybe there’s a match there.

That’s really what OceanGate’s been working on for the last 10 years, coming up with different projects. We’ve done over 18 major expeditions (at much less cost than the Titanic) matching these adventure travelers who want to do something different than just sit and then get a tourist experience where somebody tells them what’s going on. They want to be involved in both the planning of the operation and the execution and the follow up. That’s why we’ve set up the Titanic mission and why we bring the Mission Specialists, because they help underwrite the cost of doing this research.

Who are you finding is in the current market for these experiences? Who are the people that are coming to participate?

It’s a remarkably diverse group. The Titanic is an outlier in that it is such an iconic piece. So on the Titanic we have what are often referred to as Titaniacs. These are people who are just [obsessed]. I’ve had young kids come up and say, “I just love the Titanic. I know everything about the Titanic.” Yet they weren’t even born when the movie came out, which was a huge bump in enthusiasm. There’s been something like 16 feature-length movies on the Titanic. Lord knows how many books. So in the Titanic world, we have the folks who are just all Titanic. They really want to see it.

That’s probably half of our client base. The other half are these people who are these adventure travelers who go scuba diving in Indonesia or set up their own safari off the grid in Africa. One couple shipped their bikes to Croatia and started biking without a backroads guide or anything. So they’re definitely early adopters this first year.

They range in age from I think 26 to 80. We’ve actually taken a 92-year-old gentleman in the sub. They range from people who have climbed Everest to people who are not that physically able. We’ve designed the sub to handle the average person. Our requirements are: you should be able to climb a ladder or stand on a chair, and get up off the floor (you can use your hands). Basic agility is really all we need, given what we’ve done to design the experience. We try and make it as accessible as possible.

For the Mission Specialists that first time that they see the Titanic, when they’ve made such an effort to get there, what is that moment like?

It varies from specialist to specialist. In general, everyone says it’s more amazing than they expect. They have an idea of what it’s gonna look like from the movie, or maybe some of our earlier videos. But when you get there, the colors are just incredible. And the colors—as you get closer and closer, once you get within about five feet, all of a sudden the oranges and the reds come out. It’s this pastel portrait. It’s so amazingly beautiful as a wreck.

Then you’ve got this giant window [on the sub]. One of the great things is it’s 21 inches, so you can have three people all looking at the same image and not looking at this teeny little porthole like they had to do with the Russian Mir subs. That ability to be in a group setting and have multiple people is really one of the key elements…With five people they really get an interesting dynamic. You get two and a half hours going down. People get to know people.


Can you tell me about the personal travels that inspired you?

I built my own airplane and went in the early 2000s on a trip to Central America with a group called the Baja Bush Pilots Association. That was sort of a weird form of extreme travel: 21 private planes flying through Central America, [landing on] the little dirt strips all over the place…I realized that the trips I enjoyed most, it really depended on it being different and having a purpose. I really didn’t enjoy going and looking at a museum. It’s OK, but I’d rather go out and hike or explore a new area….

If you want to do extreme travel, one of the other challenges was, I’m not going to be climbing Everest. That’s something that has huge physical requirements, time requirements, and other things. I had wanted to go to space, and I still do, maybe when it gets cheaper. But when I looked at space, I thought there wasn’t a purpose there. I’d love to go work on the space station for a month, but that’s not generally available at any real price point.

So I looked at my own personal experience, and that of the folks that I travel with, I said, going somewhere with an exploration—this bush pilot thing was like we showed up without a purpose, and you land in the middle of nowhere. And you have to figure out where’s the hotel? Where am I going to get gas and all these little—I liked problem-solving. Those experiences and my love of the ocean blended together.

What is this article going to be about?

Exploring tourism at the edge of existence, including space and deep-sea travel.

We’ve been talking to a couple of the space folks on using the sub as a space analog…. The only really good [analog] is underwater, because in that case, you’re in a capsule with some people in a life-threatening or a potentially dangerous environment. It’s about as close to being in a space capsule [as we] can get.

If you mock it up on the surface, you know, ‘I can just open the door and go to McDonald’s if I don’t like it.’ When you’re in the sub, it’s a good stress test. We’re talking to the space folks about, “Hey really your folks should go in a sub. If they want to go to space or they want to go to Mars. If they want to go around the moon, a good training exercise is to put them in a setup where they’re in there with four other people for 12 hours, two and a half miles away from anything. If they’re going to lose it, that’s where they’ll lose it.”

How accessible is deep-ocean exploration right now in your view, and what needs to change for it to become more broadly accessible?

If you want to go on the web and see pictures of deep-sea creatures, that’s becoming more accessible. If you want to actually go down and see them and be part of that discovery process, it’s extremely inaccessible.

The only way you’re gonna get into the deep ocean in a submarine is if you work for NOAA, or you have a PhD and you can get time on Alvin or one of the deep-diving subs, or you’re a billionaire. There are a number of billionaires—Ray Dalio, Victor Vescovo, who made the sub to go to the Mariana Trench. Then you have to be a friend of theirs, or have something to offer… If you want to dive shallow, there are a few subs out there. So [if you] want to go 100 feet, or 1000 feet even, you can do that. But if you want to get to the average depth of the ocean of 4,000 meters, there really isn’t an opportunity to do that.

What would need to change for those sorts of experiences to become more broadly accessible, like you’re working on?

We came at it from that perspective. My perspective is from a business background, and I looked at what was happening….There were a number of projects, but they were typically altruistic. The idea was, We’re going to either go to the government to get money, or go get donations to do a project.

To make a business, and the only way we’re going to get more people underwater is to have more subs available, more people doing it so the price can come down. That’s what we did with OceanGate. We do dives in the Puget Sound area that are only $2,500 to be a Mission Specialist, up to the Titanic [at $250,000]. What needs to happen is—and I hope to have many imitators—you need to have more OceanGate subs out there, or more OceanGate-like subs….We are hoping to lead the way in that so that if you come to, say, New York City, one of the things you might be able to do is go dive in the Hudson Canyon at a reasonable price. It’s always going to be expensive, but we hope it gets down to the cost of, you know, premium seats at a Super Bowl game or something like that.

Is there anything else important I should have asked?

I think the biggest piece for us…is this need for knowledge of the ocean. We all were taught that two-thirds to three-quarters of the planet is underwater, but it’s actually 95-plus percent of the livable volume. Most of the life on this planet is underwater. If there’s life in the solar system, it’s probably aquatic. If there’s life in the universe, it is largely aquatic. NASA came to this conclusion that where you have water and energy and carbon, you have life. They find that with these extremophiles and the like.

The size of the opportunities is going to require lots of methods of exploring it. There’s a place for the average person to contribute and to really get out there and do something. That’s really what we want to do, be able to make it accessible to help advance our knowledge of the world.

Alexandra Gillespie of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a freelance writer who specializes in water and travel coverage. Her writing has appeared in NPR, National Geographic, and other national outlets. She is the former digital editor of Scuba Diving magazine.

author portrait Alexandra Gillespie
The author, Alexandra Gillespie, just after a dive (Photo: Alexandra Gillespie )
Lead Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP