Advocates of free-market capitalism such as Ayn Rand claim that progress comes about through solitary geniuses who defy the critics and do what everyone said was impossible. But in real life, innovators can't overcome the laws of physics.
“That report of the special committee of the National Council of Metal Industries—what do you think of it?”
“You know what I think of it.”
“They said Rearden Metal is a threat to public safety. They said its chemical composition is unsound, it’s brittle, it’s decomposing molecularly, and it will crack suddenly, without warning…”Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, quoted in my column “Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt“
On June 18, 2023, a submersible called Titan, owned by the private company OceanGate, dove into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. It was carrying paying passengers on a tourist excursion to the wreck of the Titanic.
An hour and forty-five minutes into the dive, the parent vessel lost communication with Titan. When the submersible failed to return on schedule, a search-and-rescue operation was launched. That search ended on June 22, when an ROV found a debris field on the ocean floor. The debris was what remained of Titan. According to reports, it suffered a catastrophic implosion.
Five people died on board the sub. One of them was the man who built it.
Stockton Rush was the CEO and founder of OceanGate. He was born into a wealthy family that made its fortune in oil, and was a distant descendant of two signers of the Declaration of Independence.
According to a 2019 profile in Smithsonian, Rush’s dream was to make deep-sea exploration a form of adventure tourism for the ultra-rich, just like space tourism is becoming:
Though the average depth of the world’s oceans is 2.3 miles, or a little more than 12,000 feet, until Titan came along only a handful of active submersibles were capable of reaching that depth, and they were all owned by the governments of the United States, France, China and Japan. Then, last December, OceanGate made history: Titan became the first privately owned sub with a human aboard to dive that deep and beyond, finally reaching 4,000 meters, or about 13,000 feet—a little deeper than where the Titanic lies.
The Titan‘s design was experimental in several respects. A sphere is the strongest shape, but Titan was cylindrical, which allowed for more usable interior space (and thus, more paying passengers per trip).
Also, all previous deep-submergence vehicles had hulls of steel or titanium. The Titan was the first DSV with a hull made of carbon fiber composite, which is light, strong and cheap to build with.
However, carbon fiber has a problem: it’s stronger in tension than it is in compression. In other words, it resists being stretched better than being squeezed. That’s the opposite of what you want in a deep sea craft that has to withstand enormous pressure.
Worse, when carbon fiber fails, it fails suddenly and catastrophically. Instead of deforming like metal, it delaminates, fracturing into layers and losing all its strength at once.
Also, most metals have well-understood physical properties, which allows engineers to predict precisely how much cumulative stress they can withstand. We lack this theoretical understanding for carbon fiber composites. That means we can’t know for sure how close they are to the point of failure.
This isn’t Monday-morning quarterbacking, condemning someone for a problem that we could only have seen in retrospect. Long before the Titan failed, numerous experts were pointing out that its design was critically flawed.
In 2018, David Lochridge, an engineering director at OceanGate, wrote a scathing safety report. He argued that as Titan descended, the huge pressure changes would create microscopic cracks in its hull. These almost undetectable fractures could weaken it to the point of sudden failure. He said that without more extensive testing, the sub wasn’t safe for crewed dives. In response, he alleged, OceanGate fired him:
Lochridge’s recommendation was that non-destructive testing of the Titan’s hull was necessary to ensure a “solid and safe product.” The filing states that Lochridge was told that such testing was impossible, and that OceanGate would instead rely on its much touted acoustic monitoring system.
The company claims this technology, developed in-house, uses acoustic sensors to listen for the tell-tale sounds of carbon fibers in the hull deteriorating to provide “early warning detection for the pilot with enough time to arrest the descent and safely return to surface.”
Lochridge, however, worried in the lawsuit that the system would not reveal flaws until the vessel was descending, and then might only provide “milliseconds” of warning before a catastrophic implosion.
…A day after filing his report, Lochridge was summoned to a meeting with Rush and company’s human resources, engineering and operations directors. There, the filing states, he was also informed that the manufacturer of the Titan’s forward viewport would only certify it to a depth of 1,300 meters due to OceanGate’s experimental design. The filing states that OceanGate refused to pay for the manufacturer to build a viewport that would meet the Titan’s intended depth of 4,000 meters.
… At the end of the meeting, after saying that he would not authorize any manned tests of Titan without a scan of the hull, Lochridge was fired and escorted from the building.“A whistleblower raised safety concerns about OceanGate’s submersible in 2018. Then he was fired.” Mark Harris, TechCrunch, 20 June 2023.
That same year, the Marine Technology Society, a coalition of industry experts, wrote a letter to Stockton Rush warning that his experimental design was dangerous. The letter urged OceanGate to have the sub certified by an independent standards body specializing in marine safety, such as Norway’s DNV—which they never did.
Another safety expert, Rob McCallum, corresponded with Rush in March 2018. He warned about “using a prototype un-classed technology in a very hostile place… Ironically, in your race to Titanic you are mirroring that famous catch cry ‘she is unsinkable'”.
No one can say that OceanGate wasn’t warned. However, Stockton Rush scoffed—repeatedly, publicly—at these concerns. From the Smithsonian profile:
…tourist subs, which could once be skippered by anyone with a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, were regulated by the Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993, which imposed rigorous new manufacturing and inspection requirements and prohibited dives below 150 feet. The law was well-meaning, Rush says, but he believes it needlessly prioritized passenger safety over commercial innovation (a position a less adventurous submariner might find open to debate). “There hasn’t been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years. It’s obscenely safe, because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown—because they have all these regulations.”
In a 2019 blog post, OceanGate explained why they didn’t pursue independent certification:
While classing agencies are willing to pursue the certification of new and innovative designs and ideas, they often have a multi-year approval cycle due to a lack of pre-existing standards, especially, for example, in the case of many of OceanGate’s innovations, such as carbon fiber pressure vessels and a real-time (RTM) hull health monitoring system. Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation.
Rush also fired back at Rob McCallum:
“We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often,” he wrote. “I take this as a serious personal insult.“
This attitude wasn’t just talk. It filtered into OceanGate’s design philosophy. Reportedly, they sought to hire young and inexperienced engineers, rather than older engineers with more experience, because that was more “inspirational”.
New hires might not have spotted the flaws with the design. Even if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have felt confident or empowered enough to push back against a rich, charismatic CEO insisting it was safe.
At first, OceanGate seemed as if it had proven its critics wrong. The Titan made multiple trips to the Titanic wreck site in 2021 and 2022 without incident. When it cast off on that June day in 2023, Stockton Rush was confident enough in his technology to pilot the sub himself.
Reading about the Titan disaster, I was reminded of Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand’s protagonists in that novel are fearless capitalists, making bold decisions to assert their superiority over hand-wringing socialists and unimaginative bureaucrats.
In one scene, they drive a high-speed train through dense population centers on rails made of an experimental, untested alloy. They scoff at journalists who fear that they’re going too fast, or government officials warning that the rails might give way. And because Rand is scripting the story so that her heroes are always right, they triumph in glory.
It’s hard not to hear echoes of this thinking in the OceanGate tragedy. Whether or not he read Atlas Shrugged, Stockton Rush (even his name sounds like a Randian character!) cast himself in the same role: the capitalist innovator doing what everyone else said was impossible, and succeeding because he was smarter and more courageous than the naysayers.
However, real-life capitalists don’t possess the same plot armor as fictional characters. Sometimes, the naysayers are right. Sometimes, the laws of physics get the last say.
The lesson of this tragedy isn’t that we should oppose innovation. The lesson is that we should oppose hubris. Great advances rarely, if ever, come from the peerless genius of a single mind working in isolation. When one man thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and has no need to listen to criticism, that’s when the warning bells should start ringing.
Safety regulations and standards can be tedious and difficult to comply with, but they exist for a reason. Every paragraph and subclause of those dry, bureaucratic manuals is written in blood. If Stockton Rush had heeded that lesson, he and his passengers would still be alive.