The disappearance of OceanGate Titan highlights the risks of the spirit of starting at sea

By SA app4 minutes Read

At present, the world remains caught up in the race to find OceanGate’s Titan submersible, lost in the Atlantic since Sunday. There are five people aboard the small vessel, and the air is quickly running out.

Regardless of the outcome, there’s only one way to look at this situation: OceanGate’s Titan, which took tourists to see the wreckage of the Titanic, is an experience as much as a business venture, and its attendees (who paid $250,000 per ticket) were the guinea pigs.

Titan is a cross between high-tech engineering for pressure resistance—OceanGate consulted with NASA on the craft, though the agency was careful to point out that it didn’t build the ship—and the low-tech jury rig. For steering, the Titan relies on a Logitech F710 Wireless PC Gamepad Controller. GPS and broadband communication are not on board but rather communicated via short texts activated by a sonar acoustic link. Passengers sit barefoot on the floor with no seatbelts, padding, or any other human comforts aside from a rudimentary “toilet.”

OceanGate, the company that organizes and operates these trips, has only operated the Titan since 2019, but was embroiled in legal battles ahead of its public launch. A former employee and submersible pilot, David Lochridge, alleged in a counterclaim lawsuit in 2018 that he was fired for raising the alarm about safety issues aboard the Titan. (This happened after he was sued by OceanGate, with the company claiming he breached his employment contract by reporting to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)

Crucially important in Lochridge’s counterclaim was the “window” (e.g. window) which was only rated for “a certified pressure of 1,300 meters [4/5 of a mile]although OceanGate planned to take passengers to depths of 4,000 meters [nearly 3x more].” Additionally, “OceanGate refused to pay for the manufacturer to build a porthole that would meet the required depth of 4,000 meters,” its legal filing states. In a letter sent around the same time to CEO Stockton Rush (on board and now missing), many other “industry leaders, deep-sea explorers and oceanographers” also warned of the flaws. Titan’s potentially fatal.

The motto “Fast, cheap or good; pick two” has been repeated in engineering circles for decades. Unfortunately, when these scenarios play out in real life, it’s the “good” that often gets overlooked. This may be sufficient when the design is for a new drawing application, but it may have serious implications in transportation or other contexts that may impact human life.

But such is, quite often, the philosophy of “disruptive innovation”. Deep sea exploration is one of the few challenging frontiers left on our planet and a fertile ground for unregulated innovation. As such, OceanGate was able to rely on surprisingly primitive technology, closer to what a startup would do, rather than an established, regulated transport manufacturer. OceanGate builds on the brainchild of Elon Musk, Starlink, to have a robust connection. Launched in 2019 (around the same time Titan began its tours), Starlink deploys nearly 4,000 satellites into low Earth orbit. But its network has only been operational for four years. Is it sturdy? Are there different versions of software running on different satellites? Is that something you’d want to bet your life on in a game controller-driven submersible with a window that’s not suited for the depth you’re traveling?

In the Titan we have a craft that seems to have set “fast” and “cheap” to “good” – and apparently learned nothing from the very ship it hoped to find: for all its impressive engineering, the Titanic also sported some fatal flaws. He used iron rivets, which were less reliable in cold temperatures. It suffered from poor design of the watertight compartments in the lower part of the boat. Its hull used a form of brittle steel. Because of these shortcomings, it sank faster – and now, more than a century later, shoddy construction is back in the spotlight.

So does humanity’s prideful belief in its ability to conquer the most ominous depths of nature – a belief for which the privileged are willing to shell out big bucks. Billionaires (and there are two lost with the Titan) can buy any item, but high-level adventure is harder to come by. Titan offers a fast track to explorer status, with relatively little training required. It’s exclusive, with high waiting lists and costs, and offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience that few have gotten.

In a short video clipOceanGate’s Rush, said: “I would like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General McArthur who said, “You are remembered for the rules you break. And, you know, I broke some rules to do that. . . . It’s about choosing the rules you’re going to break, which are the ones that will add value to others and add value to society. »

It’s unlikely Rush meant it because the rules he broke have already caused serious consequences, but Titan’s flaws may well end up persuading a future generation of submersibles to put safety first and d to teach future startups that there might be a reason why so much of the ocean is uncharted.

SA app is an anthropologist whose research explores the areas of human agency, algorithms, AI and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at @anthroppunk, PoSR.organd

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