On Sunday, June 18, 2023, at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the OceanGate Expeditions submersible Titan submerged off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada with the goal of being the first manned vessel to visit the wreckage of the Titanic. The submersible had five passengers: Stockton Rush, Hamish Harding, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Shahzada Dawood, and Suleman Dawood. The submersible was piloted by Rush, the CEO of OceanGate. Nargeolet was a 77 year-old oceanographer and Harding a 58 year-old billionaire. Shahzada Dawood, 48, was also a businessman, and like Harding had decided to join the expedition for the experience of a lifetime. He brought with him his son, Suleman, who was 19 years old. An hour and forty-five minutes after the submarine’s departure, it lost contact with its surface operator. The sub was scheduled to resurface at 3:00 p.m. At 5:40 p.m, the United States Coast Guard was informed the vessel had not returned. Over the next five days, an extensive search was conducted for the Titan and any sign of its passengers. On Thursday, June 24, 2023, the wreckage of the ship was found and its passengers declared dead.
The debris discovered from the wreckage was scattered across two sites 12,500 feet below the surface. The pieces found suggested the submarine experienced a loss of cabin pressure, causing a catastrophic implosion. This would mean the hull of the ship failed to withstand the extreme water pressure as it descended. Usually, the hull of a submarine is constructed from steel and titanium; The Titan was composed of a carbon fiber hull with titanium end caps. The recovered parts of the wreckage suggest the titanium sections of the vessel had been able to withstand the water pressure.
Concerns about the design and failure to conduct proper safety testing was reportedly brought up as a concern by former director of marine operations at OceanGate, David Lochridge, in 2018. Shortly after he was fired from the company, the Marine Technology Society (MTS) sent a letter to OceanGate Expeditions informing them that many of their members had expressed unanimous concern about the safety of the Titan and its mission to the Titanic. The experts expressed that most vessels go through rigorous testing and well-established design specifications to ensure the safety of the passengers onboard. It is worth noting that with these safety regulations in place, manned submarines have reached depths much further than the wreckage of the Titanic. In 2019, retired naval officer Victor Vescovo piloted a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 35,849 feet below sea level.
This event is tragically reminiscent of the well-known Challenger disaster, in which crew members Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael J. Smith, and Ellison Onizuka, were killed in an explosion shortly after the Challenger space shuttle launched. NASA was under considerable political pressure to proceed with the mission as quickly as possible. One such pressure was due to a State of the Union speech made by President Reagan in which he mentioned their “Teacher in Space” mission. However, prior to the launch, many safety concerns were raised by several parties. The first launch attempt was delayed due to a stripped bolt and poor weather conditions. The next morning, the weather at the launch site was considerably lower than the nominal operating temperature of the shuttle. As a result, experts involved with the mission were asked to determine if the weather posed a significant safety risk. Engineers at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer for Challenger’s solid rocket boosters, had long held concerns about the shuttle’s performance at low temperatures as they had not been properly safety tested. They recommended a delay. These concerns were brought before NASA who demanded the engineers prove the conditions were unsafe. This was a complete reversal of procedure. Thiokol managers asked the engineers to reconsider their position, and when the engineers refused to approve the launch, management at Morton Thiokol overruled their decision and approved the launch anyway.
Rockwell, another company that had worked on the shuttle, also voiced concerns about the weather conditions. When they were similarly pressured, they reworded their statement to say they could not guarantee the shuttle’s safety, but not that it was unsafe. When the final decision was made, nobody at NASA wanted to be responsible for a further delay of the mission. Jesse Moore, who had the ultimate decision on whether or not the shuttle would launch, was not informed that there had been any concerns on the safety of the shuttle. As such, the shuttle was given the green light to launch.
Like the Challenger disaster, the tragedy of the Titan was the result of numerous ethical failures over a long period of time. These events show that ethical engineering is not only up to engineers, but to every member of a project. In fact, managers and investors may even have more control over the final approval of a project than the engineers themselves. While sacrifices must occasionally be made based on the limitations of the company as a business, significant safety testing is something that can never be neglected. It is our responsibility as engineers and as humans to maintain integrity in the work that we do. At the end of the day, a ship can be replaced. The anger and frustration of a nation due to a delayed launch can be endured. Billions of dollars lost are just dollars lost. But human lives are irreplaceable. They cannot be treated as anything less than the most valuable part of any company or mission.