The US Coast Guard is currently leading an operation to rescue the five people aboard a submersible that has went missing on June 18 during a trip to explore the ruins of the Titanic.
The company behind the expedition, OceanGate, made its first trip to the Titanic wreck in 2021 and then again in 2022. The company went back this summer as part of plans to “continue to return annually to further document the Titanic and its rate of decay,” its website says.
The brainchild of CEO Stockton Rush, the Titan submersible—a watercraft that, unlike a submarine which is autonomous, needs a mother ship to launch it—is made of five-inch-thick carbon fiber, capped on each end by a dome of titanium, one of which has a clear window. It is launched from and it returns to its support vessel—the Polar Prince, in this case.
CBS journalist David Pogue highlighted some of the Titan’s oddities as part of a news story he did in 2022 when he joined an expedition to the Titanic wreck. These included elements that seemed “improvised from off-the-shelf parts,” and the game controller that operated the craft.
There’s no GPS underwater, so the surface ship is supposed to guide the sub to the shipwreck by sending text messages. During the 2022 dive CBS reported in, communications broke down and the sub lost contact for 2.5 hours—and it never found the Titanic wreck, Pogue said.
And Pogue isn’t the only one with such a story. Mike Reiss, a TV comedy writer who worked on The Simpsons and took the trip last year, said communication was lost on all three dives he was part of last year, including one to the Titanic.
To join the expedition, Pogue had to sign a document stating the following: “This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death.”
OceanGate’s website claims expeditions will be conducted respectfully and in accordance with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Guidelines for Research Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic, and comply with UNESCO guidelines for the preservation of underwater world heritage sites. But nowhere does it share evidence of vetting and obtaining regulatory approval on the vessel itself.
There are at least seven different functions that allow the sub to resurface, so it was “really concerning” that it hadn’t yet, Pogue told the BBC. If the sub became trapped or there was a leak—both possibilities—“there’s no backup, there’s no escape pod.”
“The pressure vessel is not MacGyver at all, because that’s where we worked with Boeing and NASA and the University of Washington. Everything else can fail, your thrusters can go, your lights can go. You’re still going to be safe.”—CEO Stockton Rush to CBS last November
5: People the truck-sized sub can accommodate, comprising 1 pilot and 4 crew. A Pakistani businessman and his son are aboard the submersible. So is Hamish Harding, a British billionaire and explorer. The other two passengers are believed to be Paul Henry Nargeolet, a former French navy commander, deep diver, and a submersible pilot, and OceanGate chief Stockton Rush
$250,000: Cost of a seat on the submersible
8 days: How long the complete journey lasts
4,000 meters (13,123 feet): Maximum depth the submersible reaches to view the Titanic, which sits at 3,800 feet
900 miles: How far the area of focus for the rescue operation is from the US east coast (430 miles away from Newfoundland in Canada)
20,000 feet: The depth CURV-21, which the Navy uses to salvage objects from the sea floor, can reach but it only has a lift capacity of...
...4,000 pounds: That’s way less than the 20,000 pound Titan submersible
70 and 96 hours: How long the oxygen supply on the vessel is thought to be able to last
50: Test dives the Titan had undergone, including to the equivalent depth of the Titanic, in deep waters off the Bahamas, as per OceanGate
1 hour and 45 minutes: How far into its dive Sunday (May 18) the submersible lose contact with its support vessle, the Polar Prince, according to the Boston Coast Guard, which is leading the search operation
17: Number of bolts with which the crew closes the hatch from the outside. “There’s no other way out,” CBS’s Pogue had reported
$19.8 million: How much funding OceanGate has raised in two rounds since it was founded in 2009, according to Crunchbase
Harding, who posted about the expedition on Instagram, is an avid aviator and explorer.
The British billionaire and owner of Action Aviation was one of the first people to travel the Challenger Deep in the Pacific, the deepest known point on Earth. He also holds the Guinness world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the Earth via the North and South Poles by an aircraft at 46 hours, 40 minutes, and 22 seconds.
After taking part in a human space flight by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Harding also ranks among a handful of space tourists in the world.
The Titanic, which hit an iceberg and sank during its maiden voyage from Britain to New York in 1912, has stoked curiosity for years, serving as the backdrop for the namesake blockbuster movie and various books. The wreckage was only discovered years later, in 1985.
There are alternatives to diving underwater for those curious about the Titanic’s history and wreck. Dozens of Titanic museums across the UK and the USA display various remnants of the tragedy that claimed over 1,500 lives. These include not only original parts and life-size replicas of the ship, but also recovered personal belongings like baby shoes and a box camera, as well as audio-visual testimonies from some of the 700-odd survivors.