After days of breathless and nonstop reporting, the news is that Oceangate’s “Titan” apparently
imploded as it descended. There is a political significance to this beyond the fact that millions have been spent searching for these millionaires while impoverished refugees in the Mediterranean were just left to drown. Before getting to that, let’s take a look at what apparently happened and why:
Titan was composed of three materials: The main body was carbon fiber, the tips were titanium and there was a plexiglass porthole window. Carbon fiber is used in airplanes and also some sailboat masts – very expensive ones. In both cases, the material comes under tension – pulled
apart – rather than compression. I know this about carbon fiber vs. the standard aluminum mast: In the latter, any moderately knowledgeable sailor can drill a hole, screw in stainless steel screws and make all sorts of attachments onto the mast. Not for a carbon fiber mast, which takes some really specialized knowledge.
An expert on CNN was explaining that this was the third trip down to the Titanic. (Note: According to some stories, black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s life was saved by racism since the Titanic refused to allow him on that fateful trip!) So, what probably happened was that each of the three materials – carbon fiber, titanium and plexiglass – responded slightly differently to the immense pressure (6,000 psi) they underwent, probably creating just the slightest, microscopic gap or misfit between the materials. The CNN scientist explained that if just a molecule of water came through that gap “it’s over instantaneously”. He said that the occupants probably never knew what hit them.
A somewhat different theory was offered by another expert on CNN: No other such deep dive subs are made of carbon fiber. Another expert explained on CNN that the problem with carbon fiber is that it’s a composite material. It has the fiber layers and then something to bind them together. The two materials may react differently under the extreme deep water pressure and start to delaminate – separate. This gives water the opportunity to enter and then… poof!
In either case, evidently the issue was that Titan could survive one dive but repeated dives stressed the sub, which was built from a material never used before.
Whatever exactly happened, the political significance is this: Stockton Rush, owner of Oceangate, was one of those modern entrepreneurs who claimed that today’s regulatory rules were too time consuming and costly. Why bother with them? Since Titan operated in international waters, no government had any authority to force Rush to follow protocols. He reportedly did test his model… once. What he never did was subject the model to repeated pressure tests. Too costly, you see. Those few millionaires whose lives were lost on Titan went on it voluntarily. They didn’t endanger anybody else. But the problem comes in when these same entrepreneurs take the same position regarding “costly and time consuming” testing of new chemicals or self driving autos. In those cases, there are tens of millions of lives involuntarily put at long term risk.