Beneath the surface of dreams
History was made on July 10, 2021 when Stockton Rush and his team at OceanGate reached the Titanic, at a depth of approximately 4,000 metres, in Titan, the only submersible of its kind. Writer Kim Frank witnessed this special moment for Oceanographic’s Issue 20. Read a short excerpt of the feature here, adorned with newly released video footage and photographs from the OceanGate mission.
Once upon a time, a little boy dreamt of being an astronaut, then Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, and from there Han Solo, commanding the Millennium Falcon. That same boy took apart his stuffed bear to study the mechanism that made the animal talk. When this boy became a young man, he built his own fiberglass plane from a 600-page manual and a kit, starting in his mother’s garage. Decades later, he envisioned a new kind of crewed submersible in a unique shape, utilizing materials not yet used in deep ocean exploration. A submersible that would defy convention and have the potential to democratize ocean exploration. Meet Stockton Rush, founder of OceanGate Expeditions, creator of the Titan submersible.
With an unusually thick shock of grey hair, chiselled features, and piercing blue eyes, his dynamic energy and witty, mad scientist personality burst forth. Wild genius seeps out from his foundation of California laid-back cool, with a veneer of Seattle style suitability tossed in for the sake of business meetings.
“What makes Titan different than anything ever built?” I ask, setting match to tinder.
“Essentially, the difference is the carbon fibre and titanium pressure vessel. Carbon fibre is used successfully in yachts and in aviation, but it has not been used in crewed submersibles.”
According to Stockton, this is because of fear. He believes there is no room for innovation because of great fear about using new materials. Given how small the submersible manufacturing space is, and how few new subs are made, there is not a lot of motivation for stretching the envelope. Members are either not used to innovation or not welcoming to a new entrant.
Dreamers who are doers rank high on my list of favourite kind of people. Much higher than those who say it can’t be done. Significantly higher than those who judge other people’s dreams.
We are onboard the Horizon Arctic which took part in the first round of Titan’s test dives to Titanic. The ship’s crew is constructing a ramp of rollers designed to launch the platform once we are out at sea, 600 kilometres from our dock in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Out the windows of the bridge, brightly coloured cottages tucked into the hills seem a calm juxtaposition from the open ocean that beckons beyond the protected cove.
“It’s a unique opportunity to be an authentic part of an expedition. For me the dream of being an oceanographer, out on the ship, working in the sub – I’m doing it. The whole thing. Not just getting onboard and waiting for my turn. It’s surreal, the people here on this first mission. These are people I’ve read about in books and followed on television, now they are passing down their experience to me. It hasn’t sunk in yet. The enormity of this.”
The Titanic strikes a deep emotional chord with millions of people. Many aspire to someday explore its secrets or merely visit the site as we are doing now, each day for the next week.
“Why Titanic?” I ask Stockton. “We are trying to get more people underwater,” he responds. “There is only one thing underwater that billions of people know what it is, know where it is, and lots of people want to go there: Titanic. That got us focused, if we were going to go to the Titanic, what do we need? We began to assess our existing technology, recognizing that 4,000 metres gets you to Titanic. This led us to decisions around what type of titanium to use, how much carbon fibre, whether we use an acrylic viewport or glass viewport…. We’ve been working on this launch and recovery system. How do we adapt the launch and recovery system for long term use at sea?”
The need for a sustainable funding source, combined with a broad interest to explore Titanic, helped drive the creation of new technology.
We depart from St. John’s, at the edge of the closest land mass to the Titanic site, 600 kilometres out into the deep ocean. As we head further out, the near shore pods of humpback whales and dolphins leaping in the ship’s wake disappear. Rare are the seabirds, save a couple stragglers who find respite on the back deck after flying without land for days.
The ever-changing cerulean blue of deep ocean, turquoise and white from engine froth, and charcoal grey with white caps, colours of the North Atlantic were once, 109 years ago, at this very spot where Horizon Arctic now floats 3,798 meters directly above the Titanic.
There is something profound about this dance of technology and innovation. For a week, we are firmly, if not ironically, within its embrace. Below us the Titanic, whose feats of engineering represented the best minds of its time. Preparing for the first dive, there is a buzz of activity around Titan. Both the platform and the sub are soon to make technological history, representing a fresh pushing of the envelope, paving the way for increased access to deep sea exploration.
Throughout history, innovation is a process, not an overnight thrill. Success is not actually sweeping but measured in moments – moments when people risk more than they expect, where every participant is tested beyond what they think they are capable of. True innovation is not simply an idea, but a heroic effort by visionaries, leaders, and teams committed to keep going despite setbacks, in the face of slim odds, and regardless of the powerful chorus of those who say it can’t be done. In the case of Stockton Rush’s Titan meeting Titanic? Mission accomplished.
Listen to Titanic exploration stories and see the Titan submersible at OceanGate’s Titanic Experience Tour – more info here.
This is only a short excerpt of the original feature. Read the full story, Titan meets Titanic, in Issue 20 of Oceanographic Magazine.
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