Risk and the rich
Much of the world was transfixed when the Titan submersible went missing on a tourist trip to the ill-fated Titanic lying 300 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia.
It helped that there were early reports of a 96-hour air supply allowing a kind of Times Square New Year’s Eve countdown, but alas, the ball had already dropped.
And, of course, anything connected to the Titanic is sure to grab attention. Cleverly, Titan’s owner, Stockton Rush, was married to a descendant of Titanic passengers.
In the aftermath, a series of voices emerged — people who rode on Titan and those who didn’t, all calling into question the fitness of the vessel.
One fellow reported that while on a Titanic dive there were a series of sharp cracking noises from the hull yet Rush continued the dive. The hull was a 5-inch thick shell of woven carbon fiber with titanium end caps, one of which had a viewing port.
OceanGate, Titan’s parent company, is not unlike SpaceX or Blue Origin, privately held companies developing vehicles capable of very exotic (and dangerous) travel.
Titan can also be compared to NASA’s space shuttles where engineers calculated the failure rate as 1 in 100 launches.
Titan’s rate was much higher though it’s not known if Rush was concerned about the effects of repeated exposure to the enormous pressures of a Titanic-depth dive.
Rush seemed to “thumb his nose” or ridicule the deep submersible community specifically around safety concerns even after they implored him to have Titan certified, a step he felt would stifle innovation.
Several film producers and directors declined a Titan trip, one of them specifically mentioning being uncomfortable with how risk was being managed.
Stories have now emerged of communication issues, hasty repairs and even a thruster being installed backwards, but the show still went on.
The late Tom Wolfe, acclaimed author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, might well have had a field day with the Titan story — the very wealthy in search of meaning or fun becoming a disaster as they visit one.
The Titan tragedy highlights our visceral fascination with the Titanic whose skipper also failed to manage risk.
Titanic is the world’s most famous “train wreck” lying still and cold in a dark abyss and once again it welcomes wealthy patrons into its eternal embrace.