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OceanGate gets its Titan sub ready for Titanic trips

OceanGate’s Titan submersible is designed to withstand the pressure at Titanic depths. (OceanGate Photo)

OceanGate is finally on the brink of beginning its first deep-sea dives to the Titanic, the world’s most famous shipwreck, 11 years after the company was founded.

“I was reading somewhere that most overnight successes usually happen in about the 11th year,” the Everett, Wash.-based venture’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, told GeekWire. “So I’m hoping that is the case here.”

Those 11 years haven’t all been about the Titanic: OceanGate has been regularly sending its submersibles into the depths of waters ranging from Seattle’s Elliott Bay and the Salish Sea to New York’s Hudson Canyon and the Andrea Doria’s resting place off the Massachusetts coast.

But diving down to the fabled ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic in 1912 has been OceanGate’s focus for the past several years. That’s why the company built the Titan submersible, using titanium and carbon fiber, and then rebuilt it when the first vessel wasn’t deemed strong enough to stand up to the pressure of a 12,500-foot-deep (4,000-meter-deep) dive.

Over the past couple of years, OceanGate also had to cope with Canadian red tape and COVID-19 complications. But now Rush says everything looks shipshape for a convoy of trucks to set out in a week to transport the submersible, its launch platform and other equipment to Newfoundland for staging.

Members of the OceanGate Expeditions team have even received a maritime exemption from Canadian authorities to serve out their COVID-19 quarantine on the Titan’s designated mothership, the Canadian-owned Horizon Arctic.

OceanGate’s schedule calls for shipboard operations to begin June 24. Departure from St. John’s is set for June 27, and the first dive should take place June 30.

Rush will take charge of the Titan’s video-game-style controller as the expedition’s chief pilot, with biologists, historians and other experts accompanying him to study the Titanic site. Among those experts are former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski and Arizona State University planetary scientist Meenakshi Wadhwa, who was recently named to be NASA’s Mars Sample Return program scientist.

In addition to the experts, the dive team will include mission specialists who have paid up to $150,000 to be part of the expedition. One of the mission specialists is Jaden Pan, a filmmaker who’s worked on documentaries including Animal Planet’s “Ocean Warriors.”

Pan said he expects his trip to the Titanic to be “life-changing.”

“My desire has always been to access the inaccessible, whether that be geographically, emotionally or spiritually,” he said in a news release. “Whether I am filming for a show in Antarctica or working at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center … I’m passionate about telling human interest stories and going to uncharted locations to learn, explore and make discoveries.”

Rush said the mission specialists for this first expedition range in age from 26 to over 70. Each group of customers will spend roughly a week on the Horizon Arctic, help out with shipboard operations and dive down to see the Titanic up close through a 2-foot-wide window that juts out for an all-around view..

“You can get your head in the window, and all you can see are the surroundings,” Rush said. “It’s the largest window of any deep-diving research sub.”

OceanGate plans to document the condition of the shipwreck, building on a report from a 2019 expedition that suggested the Titanic’s decomposition was accelerating. RMS Titanic, which holds the salvage rights at the site, has asked OceanGate to check out an area of the ship where it intends to recover radio equipment.

“We’ll cruise over and see the condition of the roof of the radio room,” Rush said. “That’s a primary target.”

The coming expedition will also take a broader look at the Titanic’s surroundings.

“One of the areas that hasn’t been studied as much is the marine life around the site,” Rush said. “There are hagfish and a lot of invertebrates, 300 different species that have only been seen on the Titanic. I’m really excited to see what other critters are down there.”

OceanGate plans to document the shipwreck and the debris field in 4K video, with 3-D readings that could be used to create a virtual-reality tour of the site. And if this first outing is successful, the company plans to return to the ocean floor every year to track changes in the Titanic and the surrounding ecosystem.

But there’s one thing OceanGate is definitely not planning to do.

“We’re not picking anything up,” Rush said. “We’re going to be highly respectful of everything, and we want to stay as far away from litigation and controversy as is humanly possible. The last thing I need to do is to get sideways with someone for picking stuff up or bumping into the wreck.”

The Titanic may be the Everest of deep-sea exploration, but Rush has his sights set on other peak experiences as well. OceanGate Expeditions is planning another trip to the Hudson Canyon this fall, and Rush hopes to bring in enough funding to build a second Titan sub for dives in the South Pacific.

Pan is already thinking about future odysseys. “The Titanic is just the beginning,” he said. “I can imagine other deep-ocean missions with OceanGate Expeditions.”

Discovering new marine life, exploring the 2,400-year-old Odysseus shipwreck or searching for the remains of Amelia Earhart’s plane were “just a few of the adventures I have dreamt of experiencing in the future,” Pan said.

Those may sound like high expectations for an 11-year-old startup with only 22 employees. But Rush said that if OceanGate becomes an overnight success, the company’s long-established roots in the region’s tech community might be one of the big reasons why.

“I don’t know if you could do it anywhere but in Seattle,” he said. “To find a place that has the combination of aerospace-quality manufacturing, marine technology and marine experience, as well as a great place to test a submersible — it’s really a limited universe where you have those things come together. That, and some great software tools and planning tools, have really made this possible.”

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