A Mousetrap for Billionaires
Editorial Page, October 2023

A Mousetrap for Billionaires

By Caitlin Rothermel

It’s a serious sign of how culturally messed up we are that we so often defer to experts – sometimes even refusing to take advice from anyone who’s not an expert – while allowing wealthy generalists to claim they have real expertise across a number of areas. 

This is a big-picture problem because so many schemes fueling today’s economy are nothing more than high-stakes grift. Think about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos blood testing system. Along these lines, we are learning more and more about Stockton Rush, the cofounder and chief executive officer of OceanGate Expeditions. 

Last June, the OceanGate submersible, Titan, imploded at 3,500 meters while trying to reach the Titanic shipwreck, killing four passengers and Rush. The catastrophic failure was blamed on the submersible’s experimental carbon fiber hull. As it turns out, former employees, professional societies, and other colleagues had been trying for years to stop Rush from using the Titan.

Born to a wealthy and established San Francisco family, Rush was the youngest of five children. He was descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his father was briefly the president-elect of the Bohemian Grove. Yes, that Bohemian Grove. Rush got a Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering from Princeton, and with initial plans for a career in the flight industry, worked briefly as a test engineer at McDonnell Douglas. Later, he got a business degree from UC Berkeley, followed by a stint in venture capital. 

OceanGate was founded in 2009 with the goal of building a small fleet of submersibles to use for expeditions, and to conduct sketchy-sounding environmental assessments to learn how to “safely” mine U.S. offshore waters for oil and other resources. Rush initially tried to purchase a more conventional metal submersible, but only a few exist, and they are hard to come by. So instead, he learned how to build submersibles. 

An avid scuba-diver, it was actually the Puget Sound that inspired Rush to commercialize submersible dives. He initially provided underwater exploration for tourists who, understandably, didn’t want to scuba-dive in the Sound during the cold season. This business model worked for a while – Macklemore was a passenger once.

Rush built the Titan submersible specifically to visit the Titanic, and problems were apparent from the start. In recent interviews, Karl Stanley, a submersible expert and builder provided some new insight. Professional colleagues with Rush for ten years, Stanley firmly believes that Rush “knew how this story ended.” In other words, Rush must have expected, at some level, that a catastrophic implosion was a likely, eventual outcome of the Titan dives. 

In 2019, Stanley went with Rush for the second dive of the Titan in the Bahamas. Although they only went down to 400 feet (the Titanic is at 12,500 feet), Stanley was shocked to hear sharp, regular, loud noises from the walls of the submersible – the sound of carbon fibers snapping in the hull. Stanley compared the noise to a shotgun, Rush said it was more like firecrackers, and Rush’s efforts to reassure Stanley were disconcerting: “Those are the weak fibers, letting go to ‘thin the herd.’ This is improving the strength of the hull.” 

Most submersibles are made of steel or titanium. As Rush saw it, carbon fiber had an advantage over metal because of its high strength-to-weight ratio. But carbon fiber is mostly used in the aerospace and auto industries. It was totally unknown whether the fiber would hold up or become brittle under the interacting forces of internal and external oceanic pressure. 

In a subsequent, heated email conversation, Stanley insisted that the Titan, as currently built: “… is not a marketable product … people are going to freak out about this.” Ultimately, Rush worked on a Titan redesign from 2019 to 2021. He claimed to be collaborating with NASA and Boeing on this (he was not), and later told a Titan Mission Specialist that he had “gotten the carbon fiber used to make the Titan at a big discount from Boeing because it was past its shelf-life for use in airplanes.” Boeing has denied this.

The Titan was put into service in 2021 and ran about 15 missions through June 2023. Regulatory and technical workarounds were the norm. OceanGate was based in Everett, WA, but was actually registered in the Bahamas and operated outside U.S. territorial waters. Because the Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993 prohibited submersible dives below 150 feet with passengers on board, all Titan passengers were reclassified as crew, or “Mission Specialists.” 

A Titan mission provided the kind of extreme tourism experience that is coveted in high-end circles. In this culture, it’s notoriously difficult to find a way to truly stand out. Stockton Rush would have been acutely aware of this phenomenon. Discussing Rush’s business model, Karl Stanley said, “Every part of this was driven by bragging rights and name recognition.”

The Titan trips sounded genuinely awful. You may have heard that Rush and the crew used a wireless Logitech controller to steer the Titan and control its speed. Other features were equally concerning, or at least deeply uncomfortable. The submersible was deadbolted from the outside. Inside, five had to sit close together for hours on the floor in a space the size of a minivan, with only one window in front. The toilet was at the back end, separated by only a curtain. And the Titan’s electrical system was built by Washington State University undergraduates, who I am sure were very talented, but still. 

The Titan missions from 2021 to 2023 only reached the Titanic 14% of the time. Interviews with former Mission Specialists describe multiple points of failure, like loss of surface communication; electrical issues; computer shutdowns; sonar problems; thruster malfunctions; and difficulty releasing the ballast, which prevented ascension. On one trip, everyone had to bodily rock the submersible back and forth to release the roll weights that would allow them to return to the surface. 

According to Karl Stanley, “Stockton was designing a mousetrap for billionaires.” 

So, did previous Mission Specialists hear the carbon fibers snapping in the Titan? Yes, they did. As part of the Titan upgrades, Rush built and patented an “acoustic monitoring system” to electronically track the frequency and intensity of carbon fiber breakage. Supposedly, the system would raise an alert if the cracking went beyond the norm, leaving enough time to rise to the surface, but, as director James Cameron later put it, “If your idea of safety is listening to your hull breaking, you’re doing it wrong.”

Some sort of hard end was in sight. A series of accreditation groups had either refused to class the Titan’s design or were ghosted by Rush after requesting additional safety testing. Two former high-level OceanGate employees, ready to blow the whistle, had been successfully silenced by legal action. Rush had pushed his way through problems, but was also at a financial impasse. The development of the OceanGate fleet was not progressing, potential clients were being advised against diving with them, and the last recorded funding round of $18 million was in 2020. 

Rush’s story gripped me because of how much it reads like a textbook example of “elite overproduction.” First described by mathematician turned data-based historian Peter Turchin, elite overproduction happens when societies hit peak economic growth, even as the elite have already produced too many heirs. This leaves nowhere near enough room in existing power structures for all the people expecting to gain privilege, and it predictably and ultimately leads to social crisis. 

At a personal level, I found it harder to learn a lesson from this story. Diving on the Titan exists outside the realm of anything I or almost anyone I know could actually do. It also exists outside the realm of anything I could imagine desiring. That said, we face a future of less supply, more frustration, and a need for greater discrimination. That is the case whether you are rich, poor, or part of the shrinking in-between group. The ability to maintain realistic expectations and a clear mind in the face of dwindling resources and increased demands on your mental energy is going to become more difficult and more important. 

So please – buckle up your seatbelts (if available), turn on your BS detector, take care of your vehicle, and move forward with a close eye for the next technical difficulty (it’s guaranteed to come).

October 11, 2023

About Author

caitlin I’m a member of the Vashon Loop Editorial Board and write about medicine, health, and society. I’m a research geek and an MPH, and I’m also a mom, farmer, teacher, and apocalypse librarian. I edit things. If I’m not doing something, it’s probably because I am asleep.