The Oceangate submersible.

The OceanGate Saga Highlights Our Dangerous Faith in Innovators

The missing sub’s inventor repeatedly ignored warnings about his vessel, arguing that regulations stifled progress


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Cast-iron watertight doors controlled by an electric switch. In 1910, shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff touted this groundbreaking innovation for why its soon-to-be-completed ship, the HMS Titanic, would be the safest oceanliner on the planet. We all know what happened next: during its maiden voyage, Titanic struck an iceberg and the fancy doors did little to stop the oncoming ocean. The boat and the doors ended up 13,000 feet below the Atlantic’s whitecaps as a permanent reminder of humankind’s recurrent overconfidence in our inventions and technological breakthroughs.

The cultural symbolism of Titanic feels unfortunately relevant this week as a harrowing story has captured the collective attention of every newspaper and cable news network on the planet. That of course is the massive search for the private submarine Titan, which went missing on Sunday, June 18, during one of its deep-sea tours of Titanic’s wreckage. Titan is owned and operated by an Everett, Washington-based company called OceanGate, which developed the sub to take customers willing to pay $250,000 on undersea voyages to see the Titanic. Now, the operation to save the five members aboard—among them OceanGate’s CEO Stockton Rush—has swelled to include (as of Wednesday, June 21) 13 ships, four planes, an undersea robot, and multiple sonar-equipped undersea drones. Also aboard the Titan British aviation billionaire Hamish Harding, 58, Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman, and French explorer Paul-Henry Nargeolet, 73.  At Outside, we hope that all five are found alive and well.

Back to the symbolism. In recent days, reporters have unearthed multiple examples of OceanGate’s apparent overconfidence in Titan’s technology. You have likely seen headlines about the submarine’s wacky gizmos, and how engineers steered it with a video game controller bought on Amazon (though experts have pointed out that this isn’t necessarily poor practice). The real hubris here runs deeper. Rush apparently ignored a chorus of criticism from peers in the tiny world of deep-sea exploration about many of the ship’s innovations, from its carbon-fiber hull to the way OceanGate tested it. On Tuesday, June 21, The New York Times published a 2018 letter sent to OceanGate by the nautical trade group Marine Technology Society about the company’s lackluster safety testing and protocols during the sub’s development. Specifically, MTS requested that OceanGate test prototypes of Titan, and allow the data to be scrutinized by the international maritime safety and classification society Det Norske Veritas (DNV), which conducts safety testing on many new boat designs.  The letter was signed by 38 experts from the industry, among them the group’s chairman, Will Kohnen.

“Their plan of not following classification guidelines was considered very risky,” Kohnen told The Times. Kohnen said he received a phone call from Rush shortly after the letter was sent. The OceanGate founder told him that things like safety standards and industry protocols were “stifling innovation.”

The MTS letter wasn’t the only example of OceanGate allegedly touting his technology as a way to calm critics. Also in 2018, OceanGate fired its director of marine operations, David Lochridge, who sued the company later that year for wrongful termination. In the suit, Lochridge alleged he was fired after raising red flags about the safety of the submarine’s innovative carbon-fiber hull, and the real-time system the company had developed to monitor the craft’s structural integrity at extreme depths. Lochridge says OceanGate refused to conduct non-destructive testing—a way to test the strength of a design of material without actually breaking iton the Titan’s carbon design, and was instead told that the company would rely on the monitoring system to tell if something was wrong. He argued that the pressures created by the ocean at extreme depths would, over time, weaken the carbon construction, and that more testing was needed in order to understand how this weakening would occur over time. He also said the monitoring system would allow little time for anyone to address a problem, since any cracking in the carbon fiber would lead to the craft’s immediate destruction.

“Lochridge again stressed the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths,” the lawsuit reads. “Non-destructive testing was critical to detect such potentially existing flaws in order to ensure a solid and safe product.”

Lochridge urged OceanGate to use a certification agency, specifically the American Bureau of Shipping, to inspect and certify the craft. OceanGate did not.

As criticism mounted, OceanGate published a response to critics in early 2019. A blog with no byline appeared on the corporate website touting its safety protocols and addressing the decision not to have the Titan scrutinized by the DNV or other classification companies. The reason? New tech cannot be held to the standards of old tech. “By definition, innovation is outside of an already accepted system,” the post reads. “Innovation often falls outside of the existing industry paradigm.”

Later that year, Rush reinforced this sentiment in a profile published in Smithsonian magazine. He told writer Tony Perrottet that the law governing tourism submarines—the Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993—needlessly prioritized the safety of living, breathing human beings over technological innovation that could expand the industry. “It’s obscenely safe, because they have all these regulations,” he said. “But it also hasn’t grown—because they have all these regulations.”

Rush’s arguments—and, to be honest, OceanGate’s overall vibe—are familiar to anyone who’s been following the news over the past decade. I challenge you to the read his quotes aloud and not have your mind immediately recall the latest story of a Big Tech failure, the crypto market’s implosion, or anything to do with Elon Musk’s rocky acquisition of Twitter. Critics be damned—innovators don’t follow the rules! Regulations are for small thinkers! These mantras echo through our society right now, and they tend to be shouted by individuals who get way out over their skis. And oftentimes, this sentiment is the root of high-profile disasters that reinforce our collective appreciation for regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the DNV. Just ask anyone who lost their retirement funds in the FTX collapse.

It’s hard not to hear the words of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in Rush’s repeated thwarting of regulations. After all, Holmes made this very argument a decade ago when asked why her much-hyped blood testing devices hadn’t been tested and certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Holmes argued that those who followed the status quo would never understand or appreciate her invention.

Was OceanGate a Theranos? Not likely—the company completed two successful expeditions to Titanic before the ill-fated journey on Sunday. One happy customer, Simpsons writer Mike Reiss, has even given interviews about the awesome trip he had aboard Titan. Reiss said he knew the risks of the voyage, and that the waiver he signed referenced death and injury multiple times. Something tells me the waiver didn’t include quotes from the MTS letter from 2018, or lines from David Lochridge’s lawsuit.

The story of OceanGate and the Titan is shaping up to be one of a maverick who took extreme risks in order to bring his dream to reality—and ignored a lot of smart people who tried to get him to stop. The whole ordeal has placed lives in danger. I sincerely hope that Rush and his passengers do not end up like the Titanic’s waterproof doors—undersea reminders of our sometimes foolhardy faith in innovation.

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