‘It Is A Huge, Vast, Opportunity’: How OceanGate Went from Disruptive Startup to Catastrophic Deep Sea Failure

Motherboard dug through years worth of OceanGate’s archives, finding a company that repeatedly brought up the commercial prospect of deep sea exploration while misleading the public about its claimed connections to respected government bodies and private
Christening of the Titan.

Stockton Rush gave a slight nod as the camera started rolling on a sunny day in April 2018. Standing on a silver launch platform, Rush, the CEO of ocean exploration company OceanGate, was in Washington to christen the firm’s latest submersible, Titan. In front of a crowd of about a dozen, Rush explained his motivation for launching the new vessel, which he had previously said would go to a depth of 4,000 meters.


“This technology is what we need to explore the ocean depths,” he said, adding that Titan would open up 50 percent of the planet. This moment was nine years in the making, after OceanGate first launched in 2009. And Rush suggested it wouldn’t be the end. He said OceanGate was already developing a new submarine called Cyclops 3Titan debuted in 2018 and was previously dubbed Cyclops 2—which would go to depths of 6,000 meters, meaning it could explore 98 percent of the planet's oceans. He also mentioned OceanGate’s “virtual reality” product making the oceans available to everyone. 

Occasionally reading from a piece of paper, Rush thanked OceanGate’s team, partners that provided various technologies for the vessel, and another group: OceanGate’s shareholders.

“It is a huge, vast opportunity.”

“I also want to thank all our shareholders, who have been amazing supporters of this project, with whom we couldn’t do it,” Rush told the crowd. “The days of government funding are gone. It really needs to be a private enterprise, just as exploration was at the turn of the last century, where people with means make the exploration possible.”

Now, five years after that event, Titan is missing at sea with five people aboard after the submersible lost contact during a dive to the Titanic, the flagship destination for OceanGate's curious mix of startup adventure tourism and nominally scientific documentation of the degrading wreck. They are adventurer Hamish Harding; Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an explorer and director of underwater research for the company that owns salvage rights to Titanic; businessman Shahzada Dawood and his teenage son Suleman; and Rush himself. If they are alive, they have mere hours of air left as crews of highly-skilled experts and military vehicles search for signs of the craft and its occupants 400 miles south of St. John's, Newfoundland. 


Social media users and journalists have begun to dissect every little detail about the sub and its expedition, from the fact that it was piloted by a video game controller, to its use of Starlink internet on its support boat, to the repeated warnings about the safety of Titan

Over a decade, OceanGate has meticulously documented the development of its submarines, its business, and its philosophy of "responsible commercialisation" in hours upon hours of YouTube videos, most of which, like the Titan christening video, have very few views. In the reporting and writing of this article, Motherboard reviewed dozens of videos across two different channels—OceanGate, which has just over 1,000 subscribers, and the more popular (and newer) OceanGate Expeditions, which is primarily focused on its Titanic tours and has had several videos go viral in the wake of Titan's disappearance—as well as a raft of promotional materials and press releases from, and news articles covering, OceanGate and its partners.

Part of the image of bleeding-edge technological innovation and safety that OceanGate sought to project in its videos was based on much- and oft-touted collaborations with Boeing, NASA, and the University of Washington. These institutions have in fact had relationships with OceanGate, but none appear to have been quite as substantial as OceanGate—which declined to comment beyond a statement saying its current focus is on the well-being of the Titan’s crew—has claimed. While the company’s website said Titan was “designed and engineered by OceanGate Inc. in collaboration [with] experts from NASA, Boeing and the University of Washington,” for example, the head of UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory told Motherboard in a statement that it “was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition.”


The videos on OceanGate’s YouTube channels range from webinars about its business model and scientific discoveries, to slickly produced advertisements, to low-res cell phone videos shot inside its submarines, to a bizarre shark-sighting mission with the rapper Macklemore. They paint a picture of a company moving fast. OceanGate was focused, more or less, on disrupting ocean exploration, claiming its technology was so paradigm-breaking it rendered widely-used safety standards irrelevant. OceanGate is a core part of the "Blue Economy," a buzzword investors have come up with for startups designed to make money by taking advantage of the world's oceans, the vast majority of which remain underexplored, and, in their view, under-commercialized.

“It is a huge, vast opportunity,” Rush said in one clip, discussing the abundance of resources in the ocean.

OceanGate christened its first Cyclops vessel in March 2015. The company started construction of Cyclops 2, which would become Titan, in 2017. In April 2018, OceanGate sought deep sea certification for the vessel in the Bahamas, before planning to dive to the Titanic shipwreck in June that year. OceanGate has since made multiple successful trips to the site. In a YouTube video, OceanGate said the company made a dive in April 2019 to 3,760 meters with 4 people inside. The company said this marked “the first time a non-military manned submersible has taken more than 3 people to nearly 2.34 miles below the sea surface.”


OceanGate pitched its expeditions as having a scientific bent, with wealthy customers both participating in documenting the Titanic wreck as "mission specialists" and funding the mission  itself with their hefty ticket fees. “The first nine clients to be approved and sign up and give us deposits are all Virgin Galactic future astronauts,” Rush said in 2017. At the time, the cost per ticket was $105,129; that sum grew to $250,000 by this year.

"One of the ways we're able to support this kind of scientific research is by finding different ways to fund it," Rush said during a science briefing for the 2022 Titanic expedition. "So from an OceanGate Expeditions perspective, we can take media, as we'll do this year and we did last year, and film these wrecks and these locations, and we can bring people who will be willing to help fund the operation to participate. And that gives us a completely different way to fund this and be able to go back to the Titanic and other sites every year, which is very unusual in the deep ocean."

As Rush explained it, OceanGate Inc. is split into two entities that reflect its funding sources: The OceanGate Foundation, which funds the expenses of scientists on the missions with donations, and OceanGate Expeditions, which is a Bahamian subsidiary that charters the ship and the crew. The Foundation does not appear to be a success; according to its most recent available IRS filings, it brought in $127,090 in revenue in 2021, and ended the year with -$71,253 in assets. 


To get the needed funding from citizen mission specialists—essentially, tourists—the Titanic itself is key. "Only the Titanic draws that kind of following that allows us to be able to afford to do this," Rush said. "We hope to do other sites like the Bismarck in the future, but the Titanic is the thing that everyone is very excited to see." 


OceanGate talking up cost effectiveness. Video via APL-UW YouTube page.

OceanGate's Titan submersible comes equipped with cameras, oceanographic equipment, and an "eDNA" tool that can be used to collect DNA from environmental samples. "Our views of the wreck are going to be non-destructive and low impact, yet the submersible and its high-definition cameras and instruments will allow us to collect a significant amount of scientific data," said Steven Ross, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is also OceanGate's chief scientist, during the briefing. 

Even with these high-minded scientific leanings, Rush explained that the goal was speed and avoiding bureaucratic hold-ups. "We hope [this will] allow us to expand and do many other sites, where we can bring in multi-disciplinary researchers in a format that doesn't take years of grant requests and other shuffling to take place," he said.

Many of OceanGate's early YouTube videos show the company testing its various submersibles in relatively shallow depths, largely in tropical climes like the Bahamas. They also feature a lot of wildlife videos shot underwater. Within the last several years, the company started making slicker videos more heavily promoting deeper dives, which bring more risk.


This progression from shallow to deep water isn't trivial. In a 2017 Explorer's Club lecture in New York City, Rush said, "Research submersibles don’t go in areas where the bottom of the area they’re operating in is greater than the crush depth of the submersible, which is what really kills you.”

Wreck diving of the kind OceanGate does at the Titanic is a special subclass of diving. The deeper a person dives, the more complicated and dangerous the process becomes. Adding in the wreckage of an old vessel compounds the danger.

“It's not a ride at Disney. There's a lot of real risk involved. There's a lot of challenges.”

Commercial dive trips, the kind you’d do on a holiday after a few short lessons at a resort, typically don’t go deeper than 20 or 30 feet. Beginner wrecks in shallow water sit at around 100 feet. Even these "safer" wrecks are risky and it’s easy to become disoriented. 

“You’ve got limited visibility,” Andy Ogburn, a wreck diver, told Motherboard. “You’ve got air bubbles that will dislodge sediment from the ceiling, which may be a wall or a floor depending on the orientation of the wreck.”

“You have people that will go hiking at the state park versus going up to the Appalachian Trail to going to Mount Everest,” Ogburn said. If diving in the Bahamas is like a state park, then visiting something like the Andrea Doria, a wreck off the coast of Long Island which sits at 200 feet, is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Diving the Lusitania would be like climbing Everest.


At 12,500 feet deep, exploring the wreck of the Titanic is like going to the moon.

Promotional materials posted on YouTube by OceanGate emphasize to potential customers how safe the dives down to the Titanic supposedly are. "OceanGate Expeditions offers you the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a specially-trained crew member safely diving to the Titanic wreckage site," an ad for the 2023 Titanic expedition intones. "Get ready for what Jules Verne could only imagine: a 12,500-foot journey to the bottom of the sea!"

A testimonial in the ad features Chelsea Kellogg, OceanGate's master chef, describing how safe diving in the company's submersible is. "Not one second of me experiencing anything from OceanGate have I ever felt unsafe," she said. Another portion of the video explains how dive day begins with a round of safety checks, and when the submersible surfaces after a dive, more safety checks are performed for the next team. 

Despite this focus on safety, some portions of the ad betray an element of inherent danger. "It's not a ride at Disney. There's a lot of real risk involved. There's a lot of challenges," Aaron Newman, a software security expert, said. 

“Every time you take to the sea, there's so many things that have to go right," Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut who is on OceanGate's board of directors, says in the ad. "All the electrical systems and navigation systems that have to check out… This is a very complex vehicle."


Rush begins his 2017 speech at the Explorer's Club (two of the club’s members are currently missing on his submarine) by stating that “In the last 35 years, there hasn’t been a serious injury and there have been over 15 million people [going] in [submarines]."

"They’re statistically the safest vehicles on the planet,” he said. 

When people think of submarines, they often think of the military. The massive nuclear powered submarines that Russia, China, and the United States possess are powerful technological benchmarks. They’re also the result of decades of scientific research and cutting-edge, sometimes fatal, experimentation by civilians.

“In reality, cutting edge submarine development across the centuries has often been a private venture by civilian innovators—and sometimes at very great risk and involving fatalities … Sometimes their own,” Iain Ballantyne, a military historian who focuses on the Navy and has written several books about submarines, told Motherboard. 

“Navies generally have traditionally watched and waited until strange new submarine types become viable for warfare, espionage, surveying in the ocean deep and so on… The Titan reminds me of some of the very early ventures in submarine development—a small, radical craft exploring a new means to open up the undersea world that more conventional, some would say wiser, people would not touch.”


Submersibles have traditionally been manufactured with metal hulls—steel, aluminum, or titanium. “Submarine hulls have to be able to withstand great pressures at depth and have an outer casing and a thick, extremely strong inner pressure hull, especially nuclear submarines, which go much deeper and faster than conventionally-powered vessels,” Ballantyne said. “The pressure hull is made of the highest grade of steel, and in some cases titanium alloy has been used, to achieve even greater strength at depths. The Titan reportedly uses titanium in its carbon fiber hull.”

From the start, one of the things that distinguished OceanGate was its interest in carbon fiber, a relatively exotic material rarely used in submersibles. According to the company’s website, “Titan is the world’s only carbon-fiber submersible capable of diving five people to 4,000 meters.” A previous vessel called Deepflight Challenger had a hull using carbon fiber composite, but was never fully tested or deployed after its owner died in an airplane crash. The same company that made the Deepflight Challenger's carbon fiber hull was contracted to develop Titan's—a task which OceanGate required to be completed in just 6 weeks. 

In 2017, Rush spoke to a reporter for an article in Composites World, which traced the company’s interest in carbon fiber back to 2010 and rooted it specifically in a desire to avoid the expense of using syntactic foam. A similar focus on cost and efficiency comes up repeatedly in coverage of and materials promoting OceanGates’s submersibles.


In a video documenting the collaboration between OceanGate and the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on Cyclops, for example, an offscreen narrator explains that a key to the project is that APL scientists provide expertise “as needed.” 

“How do we get Stockton all the expertise he needs in an affordable manner, so he’s not having to carry this huge overhead on this project?" said APL’s David Dyer, credited as principal engineer, in the video. "So we can bring someone in, charge a couple of hours to it, and let them go off to their own projects and their own work.”

In that same video, Dyer described Rush’s desire to avoid lengthy bouts of training for submersible pilots.

“Stockton is very interested in being able to quickly train pilots,” he said, while showing off a wireless PlayStation controller. “Have pilots be able to come in and use this thing without having to go through weeks of training on there.”

OceanGate has made much of its partnership with APL. Rush described it as “effectively our engineering partner,” and its website lists experts from APL, Boeing, and NASA as the company’s collaborators in the design and engineering of Titan. A promotional video aimed at prospective clients said OceanGate partnered with experts at APL, Boeing, and NASA to design its hull. Boeing, though, listed in a 2013 press release as having been involved in the validation of the Cyclops hull design, did not confirm any involvement with Titan and directed questions to OceanGate. APL describes the relationship somewhat differently than OceanGate does.


“APL-UW staff worked with OceanGate on its shallow-diving (500 meters/0.3 mile), steel-hulled submersible called CYCLOPS,” APL executive director Kevin Williams said in a statement. “The University’s and Laboratory’s engineering partnership with OceanGate ended with completion of the shallow water vessel CYCLOPS, which served as a test platform for OceanGate since 2015. Because APL-UW expertise involved only shallow water implementation, the Laboratory was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition.”

The APL “initially signed a $5 million research collaborative agreement with OceanGate, but only $650,000 worth of work was completed before the two organizations parted ways,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta added in a follow-up statement. 

In a 2022 press release, OceanGate specifically credited NASA’s expertise in composite hulls for its ability to reduce the weight of the experimental Titan craft enough to carry tourists to the bottom of the ocean. “The ability to construct Titan’s pressure hull with aerospace grade carbon fiber and manufacturing protocols results in a submersible which weighs a fraction of what other deep diving crewed submersibles weigh,” said Rush. “This weight reduction allows us to carry a significantly greater payload which we use to carry five crewmembers: a pilot, researchers, and mission specialists.”

Titan began construction in earnest in 2017 and was launched in 2018. NASA records show the agency began working with OceanGate on "automated fiber placement development" via a Space Act Agreement in 2020, which the company announced at the time. Motherboard could find no Space Act Agreement records indicating collaboration with OceanGate between 2016 and 2020. NASA did not respond to a request for comment. 

"Lochridge was repeatedly told that no scan of the hull or Bond Line could be done to check for delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull. Lochridge was told that no form of equipment existed to perform such a test."

Whatever the involvement of outside experts, it doesn’t seem that the Titan’s experimental hull ever was, or even could be, properly tested for safety. David Lochridge, OceanGates’s former director of marine operations, claimed in court filings that he was wrongly fired after raising concerns about the testing of the hull—among them, specifically, was that certain testing wasn’t done at all.

"Lochridge was repeatedly told that no scan of the hull or Bond Line could be done to check for delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull,” according to the filing. “Lochridge was told that no form of equipment existed to perform such a test." 

Risk-averse navies do things differently, Ballantyne said. 

"Any welds created in a military submarine hull have to be perfect, are carried out by highly skilled shipyard workers and are X-rayed to make sure there are no defects that could cause structural failure,” Ballantyne explained. “Military submarines are constantly monitored and receive major dockyard refits to ensure they can continue to operate safely for decades. All vessels have shelf life and there is an increasing need to make sure the hull integrity is safe and sound as time goes on, and so refits take longer and cost more.”

After his speech in front of the crowd in April 2018, Rush turned to Tony Nissen, OceanGate’s director of engineering, who stood behind him. Nissen looked at the bottle in his hands, and froze in  place for a second longer than seemed natural. After the hesitation, he said “and with this, I hereby christen Titan.” Nissen slammed the bottle against Titan, and the bottle shattered. The crowd watching cheered, clapped, and walloped. 

As the description on the YouTube video showing the christening said, “This maritime tradition is believed to bring good luck and safe travel to the vessel.”