In July 2022, correspondent David Pogue spent nine days at sea with Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate and designer of the Titan submersible. He was there with a producer and cameraman to document a Titanic dive for “CBS Sunday Morning.” The following month, Pogue conducted additional interviews with Rush at OceanGate’s headquarters in Everett, Washington.

Rush and four others were killed in June 2023 when the Titan suffered a catastrophic implosion during a dive to the wreck of the Titanic. 

Much of their conversations concerned precisely the factors that have come under scrutiny since the Titan disaster: the carbon-fiber hull, the unusual design, and Rush’s tendency to save money and buck convention.

These excerpts from the interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

July 2022 interviews

The OceanGate Titan submersible.

CBS News

The Carbon-Fiber Shell

RUSH:   The key thing we’ve done with the pressure vessel is, it’s made of carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber is a great material. It’s better than titanium. It’s better than a lot of other materials. But you can have a catastrophic failure where you can have imperfections in the structure that you wouldn’t have in a metal. And so you really have to watch how you make it. (LAUGH)

POGUE:   Well, if they weren’t using carbon fiber for submersibles, and if one little crack could send you to your death, why did you use it? You don’t need it to be lightweight.

RUSH:   Yes, you do. The interesting thing is, carbon fiber is three times better than titanium on strength-to-buoyancy. So when you’re underwater, it’s strength-to-buoyancy, not strength-to-weight. And so, because we make it out of carbon fiber, all of a sudden my pressure vessel is lighter than the water it displaces.

So it’s one of the best materials to make a sub out of. You just have to do it the right way.

POGUE:   So if the whole thing were titanium…

RUSH:   It would weigh twice as much.

Sealing the dome of the Titan. 

David Pogue/CBS News

POGUE:   Would it float?

RUSH:   No. I’d have to add a whole bunch of that foam. If you look at Alvin or the Shinkai or the Jiaolong, any of the deep-diving subs, Jiaolong, they are a sphere and a whole boatload of foam.

POGUE:   Has anyone else said, “Look what Rush did. Maybe we should make ours out of carbon fiber?”

RUSH:   No. I don’t think there are a lotta people chasing me on this one, unfortunately, but they will eventually. (LAUGH)

So you’ve got a carbon fiber cylinder, which is a difficult structure.

We worked with Boeing, had a design contract with them. We went through a bunch of different designs on this. They had made a thing called the Deep Sea Glider, which was an autonomous vehicle to go to 6,000 meters. And we were gonna do something to size it up a little bit.

And we did a bunch of runs on this, and when they would analyze the hull, it took 24 hours on their supercomputer to analyze. It knew every single fiber, millions of fibers, how do they respond. And doing a dome [made of carbon fiber] is a much harder shape.

So we made the domes out of titanium. This is three-and-a-quarter-inch–thick titanium.

You got the carbon fiber, a glued titanium face, an interface, and the dome. The tolerance on this is 5,000th of an inch over a five-foot diameter. So it’s a very tight tolerance on that surface. There’s a single O-ring in here that keeps it at least in shallow pressure.

The other thing with carbon fiber is, you can’t cut holes in it. It doesn’t like that. And so these [cables] go into the titanium, and that’s how we get our data in. So that’s how you get things in and out of the sub, is through the little port.

POGUE:   So you have no pipes, wires, cables or tubes going into the carbon fiber part.

RUSH:   Correct. Yes, nothing touches the carbon fiber.

The Titan submersible on the deck of its launch ship, which in Summer 2022 was the MV Horizon Arctic. 

Anthony Laudato/CBS News

The hull-monitor system

POGUE:   How many backup systems do you have for the thing collapsing?

RUSH:   So the key on that one is, we have an acoustic monitoring system. Carbon fiber makes noise. There’re millions of fibers there. There are 667 layers of very thin carbon fiber in this five-inch piece.

It makes noise, and it crackles. When the first time you pressurize it, if you think about it, of those million fibers, a couple of ’em are sorta weak. They shouldn’t have made the team.

And when it gets pressurized, they snap, and they make a noise. The first time you get to, say, 1,000 meters, it will make a whole bunch of noise. And then you back off, and it won’t make any noise until you exceed the last maximum.

And so when, the first time we took it to full pressure, it made a bunch of noise. The second time, it made very little noise.

We have eight acoustic sensors in there, and they’re listening for this. So when we get to 1,000 meters, if all of a sudden we hear this thing crackling, it’s, like, “Wait, did somebody run a forklift into it? You know, has it had cyclic fatigue? Is there something wrong?”

And you get a huge amount of warning. We’ve destroyed several structures [in testing], and you get a lotta warning. I mean, 1,500 meters of warning.

It’ll start, you’ll go, “Oh, this isn’t happy.” (LAUGH) And then you’ll keep doin’ it, and then it explodes or implodes. We do it at the University of Washington. It shakes the whole building when you destroy the thing.

So that’s our backup for the hull. And we’re the only people I know that use continuous monitoring of the hull.

POGUE:   So if you heard the carbon fiber creaking—

RUSH:   If I heard the carbon fiber go pop, pop, pop, then the gauge says, “You’re getting a whole bunch of events.”

POGUE:   Could you get three hours back to the surface in time?

RUSH:   Yes. Yes, ’cause what happens is once you stop going down, the pressure, now it’s easier. You just have to stop your descent. And so that’s what we did a lotta testing on. You know, what kinda warning do you get?

And as I said, the warning is about 1,500 meters. It’s a huge amount of pressure from the point where we’d say, “Oh, the hull’s not happy” to when it implodes. And so you got a lotta time to drop your weights, to go back to the surface, and then say, “Okay, let’s find out what’s wrong.”

POGUE:   Well, what is left to worry about?

RUSH:   What’s left to worry about is the things people don’t worry about, which is: you’re on a ship in the open ocean. I worry more about people falling and having a head injury—breaking their arm—collarbone. You know, you’re on a boat. The most dangerous thing is the boat.

POGUE:   You call that more dangerous than this [sub]?

RUSH:   Yes. Once you’ve been sealed inside this, we have four days of life support. That is the safest place on planet Earth. The entire world could be destroyed. A nuclear bomb could take out the ship. And we for four days, we’re alive. End of four days, we’re dead. (LAUGH)

It is like we just put you in the world’s safe, and it doesn’t matter what happens outside. As long as you scrub the carbon dioxide and add oxygen, you’re gonna be fine for a while.

Launching the Titan. 

CBS News

POGUE:   Well, wait a minute. What about scrubbing the carbon dioxide? What if that system fails?

RUSH:   So we have two systems. One is a thing called Sodasorb, which is calcium hydroxide. It’s actually the same system that’s used on a hyperbaric chamber. And it takes the carbon dioxide out.

If that system fails—’cause it does require a battery—we have lithium-hydroxide blankets, which are used in the mine industry mostly, and also in submersibles. And you just hang ’em, and they scrub the carbon dioxide just from ambient flow.

And then we carry a bunch of oxygen. So we have enough oxygen for four days.

POGUE:   You know, I’m so much less worried about this now. (LAUGH)

RUSH:   Just watch what you do on the boat. (LAUGH)

After the Titan is lowered into the water, divers detach the submersible craft from its launch platform. 

CBS News

Touring the sub interior

RUSH:   Take your shoes off, that’s customary.

POGUE:   Okay.

RUSH:   Take your hat off, take your personal flotation device off. And then pop on in.

POGUE:   It’s like a minivan.

RUSH:   Yeah. It’s like the Suburban, it’s a little bigger than you would think. I like to say this is not your grandfather’s submersible. (LAUGH) Most of the deep-diving subs were made with a purpose. They wanted to collect a lot of stuff, it was a science tool, and the person in it was sort of the afterthought. There wasn’t a lot of thought given to creature comforts.

They tend to be spheres, they’re small, they’re cramped. They don’t have a toilet; we have a little toilet. We put a privacy screen there.

My perspective was, look, I wanted something that was comfortable to be in, ’cause it’s hard to observe when you’re uncomfortable.

We only have one button, that’s it.

POGUE:    Wait a minute. I’ve seen submersibles, and there’re banks of controls, like, like cockpit after cockpit.

RUSH:   Exactly. Yeah, this is to other submersibles what the iPhone was to the Blackberry.

You could have a lot of buttons and things, or you can use modern technology to make it simple.

We have a couple of computers. We have a—Linux computer that we use for our control systems. We have a Windows computer, ’cause some of our stuff requires Windows—not that there’s anything wrong with that. (LAUGH)

They are touch screens.

My ultimate goal is that the pilot is there to show people where they’re going. It should be like an elevator, you know. It shouldn’t take a lot of skills. Just like airplanes fly themselves—there’s a lot of button pushing, but essentially they can do the landing, they can taxi, they can do the whole nine yards. Why can’t a sub do that?

And the reason is nobody’s spent the money to innovate, ’cause there hasn’t been enough volume. And so I sort of said, “let’s go for it. Let’s do something completely out of the ordinary.”

POGUE:   So how do you drive it?

RUSH:   We run the whole thing with this game controller. (LAUGH)

POGUE:   Come on!

Stockton Rush with David Pogue inside the Titan. 

CBS News

RUSH:   So one of our earlier subs, we developed a controller, and I went and got a commercial joystick that you would use, say, on a forklift, and it had its own computer, and it was $10,000 and it was big and bulky.

But this thing is made for a 16-year-old to throw it around, and we keep a couple of spares. And so the neat thing is it’s Bluetooth. I can hand it to anyone.

And yet you can’t put this on a Navy sub and comply with all the Navy rules. “Every circuit has to have its own switch that’s explosion-proof…” It’s all things that made a lot of sense in the ’60s and ’70s. They don’t make any sense now. It’s better to have distributed power, low voltage, run it on Bluetooth, have lots of backups.

POGUE:   But I’m sure a lot of people like me comes to this with cultural baggage that says, “This thing should be filled with electronics, and blinking screens, and pinging sounds.”

RUSH:   I like messing with people’s heads.

POGUE:   So these [tubular ceiling fixtures] are both handles and lights?

RUSH:   Yes. They’re handles and lights. I got these from Camper World, and they are LED lights in here—and a nice little decorative feature.

POGUE:   So it seems like a lot of the way you made this is by taking off-the-shelf parts and sort of MacGyvering them together.

RUSH:   Yeah. Pretty much.

POGUE:   Does that not raise anybody’s eyebrows in the industry?

RUSH:   Oh yeah! Oh yeah. (LAUGH) Yeah, no, I’m definitely an outlier. There’s been more intrigue into that than I can go into. But—yeah, I’ve been considered just totally out of my, you know—”Well, you can’t do this.”

And I don’t know if it was MacArthur, but somebody said, “You’re remembered for the rules you break.” And that’s the fact. And there were a lot of rules out there that didn’t make engineering sense to me.

They made sense at the time in the ’60s and ’70s, and yet there was a whole industry of people who are just gonna, “Hey, this is how you do it, nobody’s been hurt in a commercial sub in 35 years—they’re the safest vehicles on the planet.”

But you know, there’s a limit. You know, at some point, safety just is pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything. At some point you’re gonna take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I said, “I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”

POGUE:   Wow.

RUSH:   And a lot of people didn’t like that. (LAUGH)

Titanic-Tourist Sub
An undated photo of the submersible vessel Titan.

OceanGate Expeditions via AP

POGUE:   And I guess the last thing, we should talk about the view port.

RUSH:   So the view port is seven-inch-thick plexiglass, acrylic, and that’s another thing where I broke the rules. A lot of the submersible industry is run by Pressure Vessels for Human [Occupancy] standards, which acts like a standards body, but it’s not a standards body; it’s a volunteer group that has come up with some rules.

And there was a very well-known person, Clarence Statue (PH), was, like, the king of acrylic. And so he wrote a book—well, he had several books, but one of these is sort of the Bible. And even he admitted that he was super conservative. It has safety factors that—they were so high, he didn’t call ’em safety factors, he called ’em “conversion factors.”

You know, for most things, safety factors are one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half…and it’s four to ten. And most of what he was looking at was lower-pressure applications. And so when you look at the charts, we’re off the charts.

One of the things about acrylic that’s really great is, before it fails, at one-third its failure pressure, it will start to “craze.” So it’ll often be distorted. So you know when that thing’s gonna fail. And so when I was looking at this, that view port is—according to the rules, it is not allowed.

So there’s these weird rules that are out there.

It will shrink. It’s a semi-solid, the plexiglass; it’ll come into the cabin by about three-quarters of an inch—all of the pressure that’s there.

POGUE:   Oh, man. And that’s a good thing?

RUSH:   Well, that’s what it is. But the great thing about plexiglass that I love is, you can see every surface. And if you’ve overstressed it, or you’ve even come close, it starts to get this crazing effect.

POGUE:   Okay. And if that happened underwater—

RUSH:   You just stop and go to the surface.

POGUE:   You would have time to get back up?

RUSH:   Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s way more warning than you need.

A view through the Titan’s observation window. 

CBS News

OceanGate HQ

Pogue and Rush toured the OceanGate headquarters in Everett, Washington—a large workshop space filled with large submersible components on tables.

POGUE:   [Inspecting a shredded, black, exploded mass] Is this carbon fiber?

RUSH:   Yes. Yeah. At one point we were gonna do a carbon-fiber dome. This is what happens when carbon fiber implodes.

POGUE:   I take it this was an early test and nobody was killed.

RUSH: No. No animals were hurt in the making of this movie—or in the production of that.

One of our earlier suppliers had convinced me that they could do a dome in carbon fiber. And it’s hard enough to do it in the cylinder, ’cause you’re trying to match the load path in a cylinder. It’s all octagonal.

So we did some testing of it. And you can’t really innovate—if you’re innovating, you’re breaking things, by definition. (LAUGH) You’re finding out what the limit is.

So we took this out and tested it. And it didn’t work. It didn’t even come close to getting the depth they wanted. I think that got to—oh, 2,500 meters.

It is amazing what happens when these things implode. This is several sticks of dynamite. This stuff is quite strong.

Like, over here, we blew this one up. So this is all a one-third scale [model of the Titan]. We were able to blow this up intentionally, to hear what it’s like with our acoustic monitoring system. What we wanted to verify was, we can detect the carbon fiber failing way before it happens, so that you can stop your descent and go to the surface.

And that’s what we found out here. So we now know what this shape sounds like when it’s uncomfortable and right before death.

It’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

When you go beyond 6,000 PSI in the test chamber that we were using at the University of Washington, they have to empty the building. Only essential personnel can be there.

POGUE:   Because it’s so loud?

RUSH: Because if it goes off, it’s—not quite low-level nuclear, but it’s a lot. It’s (LAUGH) tens of thousands of pounds of TNT.

And so you’re in there getting the test going and it’s like, “Everyone out of the building! Everyone out of the building!” And then this thing goes, and it’s starting to make a lot of noise.

So we have the acoustic monitoring, and it’s goin’ nuts. And we know it’s gonna go. And then all of a sudden it goes, and the whole building shakes. I mean, it is incredible.

But, yeah, we’ve blown up a few things. And it’s pretty dramatic.

POGUE:   When you say blow it up, you mean—

RUSH:   Imploded. We implode it—

POGUE:   You took it to such a pressure that it failed.

RUSH:   That it failed. Yeah.

POGUE:   I’m just glad you did this test before you started to take on clients.

RUSH:   Yes. As we say, we’re in the risk business. But we risk assets, not people. It’s not about avoiding risk. It’s just making sure you’re risking time or money, but not people.

POGUE:   Things, not people.

RUSH:   Or…not people we like. (LAUGHTER) Sorry.

When you’re gonna try new stuff, they’re called failure-modes effects analysis—a process where you look at each of the systems or each of the things that can go wrong, and you rank ’em as far as how frequent they are. The severity of, if it goes wrong, what would happen?

If you have something that is gonna kill somebody, it better be very infrequent, and it better be highly detectable.

Well, obviously, the hull is critical. And if the hull being carbon fiber—and being a unique material, and having the potential for things like water intrusion—but if that hull goes, that could kill people.

You wanna make sure it’s infrequent and also detectable. And one of the ways to do detection is this acoustic monitoring system.

So we bench-checked it against the system that Boeing uses. We made our own system that was much smaller and more sensitive, actually.

And then we also have strain gauges. So we look at the hull every step of the way.

And so we get to 1,000 meters and the hull’s acting differently, the strain gauge goes off, or the acoustic monitoring system is showing a lot of noise, you call off the dive. You come to the surface. You find out what’s wrong.

And so that’s what we tested with all of these components, taking it to destruction, and also testing at the deep-ocean test facility, the entire sub, and being able to see: What does it sound like on its first dive, and what’s it sound like now? And we can keep comparing it and making sure it’s still putting out that beautiful sound—of silence. (LAUGH)

Costs of operation

POGUE:   You had to hire a ship at the peak of gas prices in the universe. Are you making money on this operation?

RUSH:   (SIGH) No. Not yet. So it’s been 12 years. We’re getting closer. People might say, “Hey, that’s a lot of money: $250,000?” But, yeah, we’re not making any.

It’s very expensive. I mean, this is one of the finest ships out there, in the height of demand for ships for building out oilfields and the like. And then the price of gas is huge. And then you have all kinds of other expenses of, you know, transport, and customs duties, and all kinds of things. It is an extremely expensive activity. Ultimately, it will pencil, and it’s getting closer.

POGUE:   Can I ask how much gas costs this summer?

RUSH:   Well, the funny thing about gas—when you’re buying fuel for a commercial vessel, it is sold in units of cubes, and a “cube” is a thousand liters. And we went through over $1 million of gas.

Rush’s background

POGUE:   So where did you come from? Trace your arc.

RUSH:   A circuitous arc. I wanted to be the first person on Mars. My whole life, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was part of the tail end of the Apollo crowd. And then there was Star Wars, and Star Trek, and then you go down: Gravity—you name the movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey, all that stuff.

And that was my dream. I went and got an aerospace engineering degree with that goal. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but my eyesight isn’t good enough for that. I realized I wasn’t gonna be a mission specialist, when that became an option.

And I thought, “Well, I’ll wait ’til, you know, you can buy your way into Space. I’ll go make money.”

And when that became an option, I had this epiphany that it wasn’t about going to space; it was about exploring. It was about finding new life forms. That was what I wanted to be: I wanted to be sort of the Captain Kirk. I didn’t want to be the passenger in the back.

And I realized that the ocean is the universe: That’s where life is.

Even NASA admits that if there is life in our Solar System, it’s aquatic. If it’s in the universe, it’s likely aquatic. The hard thing is to have mammals on the surface where we’re so subject to minor changes in climate and temperature. In the ocean, the sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

And that was when I realized that I wanted to explore the ocean. And it fit very well, it turns out, that an aerospace engineering degree actually has helped me do things in the submersible world that people who don’t understand compressible fluid flows didn’t quite figure out. (LAUGH)

The Titan fits five – about the size of a minivan, without seats. 

David Pogue/CBS News

The five-seater

POGUE:   So all existing Titanic-worthy subs fit only two, possibly three, people, and it’s quite tight.

RUSH:   Yes.

POGUE:   Why five people?

RUSH:   So early on, this was the question: If you’re gonna try to create a business, and a way for these folks who want to have amazing experiences, okay, how many people do you need?

You gotta have somebody who knows what you’re lookin’ at. If you go down just to go look, it’s nice, but it doesn’t have any context, there’s not a lot of emotion. So when you have somebody whose life has been the starfish life cycle; or the red-urchin depth component, and they get in the sub, and they are super-excited, and they’ve got a story to tell and they’re very emotional about it, it’s a night-and-day experience.

So you gotta have the subject-matter expert. You gotta have the pilot.

And then, you don’t do the coolest thing in your life alone. You do it with your wife, your kids, your best friend—you gotta have two people. You want to be able to say, you know, together that you did this.

And so that says you gotta have four [spots on the sub], and five is close enough. (LAUGH)

POGUE:   You threw in one more.

RUSH:   Well, and the other component of this is making this a business, to get more exploration, get more people underwater. And so one of the ways that you can do that is with media.

And so having a tube [submersible shape] gives you enough depth of field so that you can have a director, and a cameraman, and people in the front. And so that sorta changes your configuration than a sphere, which makes it very difficult to do that.

OceanGate CEP Stockton Rush during the Summer 2022 expeditions to the site of the Titanic. 

Anthony Laudato/CBS News

His Clientele

POGUE:   Who are the typical clientele for these missions to the Titanic?

RUSH: It varies. A huge range. So we have clients that are Titanic enthusiasts, which we refer to as “Titaniacs.” They’re just enamored with the Titanic their whole life. Some of those folks are affluent, and some are not.

So we’ve had people who have mortgaged their home to come and do the trip, and we have people who don’t think twice about a trip of this cost. We had one gentleman who had won the lottery, so—a mix of the two. It’s a really great bunch of people.

One thing that they all have in common is they are open-minded, looking for something different, very personable. When people want to sign up, in the process of explaining what the experience is like, we also get a sense as to, “Are they flexible enough? Are they the kinda person who, if they get weathered-out for two days, are gonna get really mad? Or are they gonna be the person who says, ‘Hey, I had a wonderful time'”?

And so we’ve been very fortunate that the people—by the nature of the fact this was so far out there—this is only the second year we’ve done it—that attracts a person who is flexible, who is looking for adventure, and who sees a “problem” as something good, as opposed to a reason to stick their head in the sand and be upset.

POGUE:   It strikes me that the scale of “easygoing” and “wealthy” gets narrower at the far end. I mean—

RUSH:   In engineering—the Venn Diagram.

POGUE:   Yeah, the Venn Diagram of “easygoing people” and “wealthy people,” there’s probably not that big a bubble in the middle.

RUSH:   There’s more than you would think. And in some ways maybe it’s growing, because we’re having a lot more wealthy people. But I think people are appreciating that, particularly after the pandemic.

We had a couple people: “Life is short.” People are looking for meaning. It’s the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs thing, you know? You get to the self-actualization point, and a subset of people come up with, “It’s about relationships,” “It’s about people,” “It’s about experiences,” “It’s about memories,” “It’s about legacy,” “It’s about giving back.” When your basic needs are taken care of, what’s the meaning of life?

And so there are a lot of people out there who are looking for something that’s different. And it used to be going to Antarctica was “different.” It used to be a safari was “different.” It used to be climbing Kilimanjaro was “different.” You know, all these things were very unique. And now they’re not as unique.

But what we’re doing underwater is way out there, and will be unique for decades.

The bow of the RMS Titanic.

CBS News

Titanic Visitation

POGUE:   There’s been a certain amount of controversy since the Titanic was discovered. You know: are you taking artifacts? Who has the rights?

Does any of that involve you?

RUSH:   Involve us? We’re going to the Titanic! (LAUGH) So by nature of going to the Titanic, I guess we’re involved.

We don’t collect artifacts, we don’t treasure-hunt, we don’t pick things up. I don’t see a value in doing that.

On the other side, the people who say, “You can’t go there ’cause it’s a gravesite,” don’t really have much of an argument. Because this is not like I’m going to the Pyramids that’s gonna be there in a hundred years. In a decade or less, or maybe a little more, it’s not gonna be there.

The wreck will be gone. At some point there will be no Titanic, it will be eaten by the bacteria, it’ll be an artificial reef that doesn’t look like the Titanic.

So if we don’t go and document it, and take the pictures…

I mean, there are areas of the debris field no one’s been to. You know, we don’t know what’s there. If we don’t go do that, then who is gonna do that?

So if we want to preserve the memory of the Titanic, and understand the site, and how it’s decaying, and capture 8K video, and things like that so future generations can see it, then you gotta let folks go down there. And so I really see what we do as extending the story of the Titanic, the inspiration of the Titanic.

It’s really memorializing those who died. Let’s not forget about them. They were almost forgotten during the Depression. People didn’t talk about the Titanic. So there have been periods when it’s been sorta forgotten.

And it’s such an iconic wreck, it’s led to so many improvements in maritime safety, it’s inspired so many people…I think what we’re doing is really an important thing, and I have a hard time understanding why someone would say, “Just leave it alone.”

POGUE:   Is there anyone like that? Do you have haters?

RUSH:   We get emails all the time, yeah.

POGUE:   And what’s the argument?

RUSH:   “It’s a gravesite.”

POGUE:   People go to gravesites!

RUSH:   Yeah! They go to the Tower of London, they go to Gettysburg…

POGUE:   Taj Mahal…

RUSH:   Yeah. We don’t even have a gift shop. (LAUGH)

August 2022 interview

POGUE:   Stockton Rush, thank you for joining us. Can you, in a nutshell, describe this business?


POGUE:   Okay, we’re wrapped!

RUSH:   There you go. (LAUGH)

It’s a very unusual business. I started this probably in the wrong way, which is: I just wanted to do cool things with cool people. And the second objective was, I wanted to expand humanity’s understanding of the ocean and ocean awareness.

There are these folks who wanna do amazing trips and travel, and be involved. And there’s this huge research and exploration need of the ocean. And so I melded those together. So it was a little bit of a backwards approach to it.

But to describe it in a nutshell, it is its own category. It’s a new type of travel, on the cutting edge, I think, of the whole adventure-travel movement, and we’re even beyond that. Participatory, extreme adventure travel, maybe. I don’t know.

POGUE:   Is it like the new rocketry, taking up citizens?

RUSH:   From a procedure standpoint, it’s similar. We go through a lotta checklists, a lotta procedures, a lotta sign-offs, different groups that need to identify that we’re ready to dive. Similar in some of the operational and safety issues.               

How do you build a culture of… It’s one thing to say, “Everyone can stop a mission or halt it,” and it’s another to really encourage that. And that’s a constant process. And that’s the same kinda thing you deal with in space and other high-risk activities: building a culture of safety, building a culture that encourages people to speak up. Those are very similar.

The life-support systems are basically identical. We’re adding oxygen, we’re scrubbing carbon dioxide.

POGUE:   And then in terms of the business itself, the value proposition is what? You pay this, you get what?

RUSH:   We don’t want people to think it’s, you know, “I pay this, I get this.” What you’re doing is you’re supporting the expedition, and what you’re gonna get is an opportunity to participate in it, which is gonna involve a dive to the Titanic, weather permitting.

As well as this less-understood component, which is, you’re part of the expedition team. You don’t have to participate in the activities, but we encourage it, and we try to select people and attract people who really do wanna be involved.

POGUE:   And how real are the jobs being done by those folks?

RUSH:   There are things that are maybe less critical. For example, reviewing video content, you know? You’re not gonna hurt anybody if you mess that up.

We have our mission specialists closing the dome. [OceanGate referred to its Titanic customers as “mission specialists.”]

That’s pretty critical, but they’re bolts; you can tell if the bolt is tightened right. So we wouldn’t have someone do something where you couldn’t easily see if it was done wrong. The detectability piece needs to be high. And the impact of it being wrong shouldn’t be catastrophic.

Cleaning out the sub when it comes back, that’s a job that needs to be done. We gotta put new supplies in. Those all get double-checked anyway. So a lot of those things are easy to do.

POGUE:   Your sub holds five people. So there’s a pilot, and then you usually take down three—

RUSH:   Mission specialists.

POGUE:   Paying mission specialists. And then there’s a scientist on board.

RUSH:   Correct. 

POGUE:   Well then, are these scientific expeditions, or are they adventure-travel expeditions?

RUSH:   So they are a blend. They are technically adventure travel with a science component—or a research [component]—or an exploration component.

You know, science scares some people. But shipwrecks are great. And so when we go to a shipwreck, you definitely want somebody who could talk about what that shipwreck was, or a marine biologist who talks about the shipwreck as an artificial reef. So again, every dive has a scientific purpose, or a research, or an exploration purpose. But it is funded by somebody who’s looking for an adventure travel experience.

POGUE:   How dangerous is it?

RUSH:   I don’t think it’s very dangerous.

If you look at submersible activity over the last three decades, there hasn’t even been a major injury, let alone a fatality. And when they did have problems 30-plus years ago, they’re all at the surface.

What worries us is not once you’re underwater; what worries me is when I’m getting you there. When you’re on the ship, in icy states, with big doors that can crush your hands, and people who may not have the best balance, who fall down, bang their head, that’s, to me, the dangerous part.

OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who was behind the creation of the Titan submersible, in Summer 2022. Rush and four others were killed during a dive to the wreck of the Titanic in June 2023.  

CBS News

POGUE:   Yeah, it’s counterintuitive. I would certainly not expect life on the surface ship to be the dangerous part.

I mean, I worried about a leak collapsing the thing. And I worried about the oxygen system failing. But you told me I was worried about the wrong things.

RUSH:   Exactly.

POGUE:   So what are the things to worry about?

RUSH:   Getting entangled. That’s the number one worry when you’re under, getting entangled or stuck. Things that will stop me from being able to get to the surface: overhangs, fishnets, entanglement hazards.

And that’s just piloting technique. It’s pretty clear. If it’s an overhang, don’t go under it, you know? If there’s a net, don’t go near it.

POGUE:   How many submersibles are there in the world that can visit the Titanic?

RUSH:   There are roughly five or six. So some of ’em are mothballed. The Mir submersibles [the pair of Russian submersibles that James Cameron used to film “Titanic” scenes] are mothballed; they’ll never dive again. The French Nautile submarine doesn’t operate very much, but it has gone to the Titanic. Alvin [Woods Hole’s deep-sea submersible] just got re-certified, so it’s definitely operating and can do it. The Chinese Yalong, the Japanese Shinkai…it’s a handful.

None of those subs are actively going to the Titanic. The last time anybody went to the Titanic was a brief trip in 2019. Victor Vescovo went with his deep-diving sub, did a couple of dives. Before that, the last time anybody had even been to it with a robot was back in 2010. And before that, the last time anybody went in a submersible, I think was 2005, 2007.

So no one’s been down there, and no one’s planning to go back—except us. Pretty much.

POGUE:   And what’s the difference between those submersibles and yours?

RUSH:   Well, there are a lotta differences. All of those subs are three-person subs, or two-person, and we’re five. And that’s important when you’re gonna bring the mission specialists and the experts.

All those subs are metal. None of ’em use carbon fiber. They’re all much heavier, so they have fewer people, and they all require a dedicated surface ship. So they have an integrated launch and recovery system that is ship-dependent, which really limits the economics of how they function.

POGUE:   You mean you can launch from any old rented ship, not a particular ship.

RUSH:   Exactly.

POGUE:   I see. And surely, there was some pushback when you were like, “I’m going to design my sub to take non-scientists to the Titanic, out of a material that hasn’t been used before.”

RUSH:   Yes. (LAUGH) But it’s funny, ’cause the pushback is…you get it in anything. I mean, anything when you’re trying something outside the box, people inside the box think you’re nuts. (LAUGH)

It’s no different than what I used to experience when I built my own airplane. It’s fiberglass. And 25, 30 years ago when I built it, there were still a lotta people who said, “You can’t use composites in airplanes!” And now we all fly in planes with composites.

Same thing when Elon Musk was doing SpaceX and everyone said, “There’s no way you can have private space operations.”

That’s the nature of the beast, you know? Inside the box, everything’s scary.

POGUE:   It seems like this submersible has some elements of MacGyver-y, jerry-riggedness. You’re like, “We bought these handles off CamperWorld.com.” And you’re like, “These thrusters are modified from some other purpose.”

RUSH:   I don’t know if I’d use that description of it. There are certain things that you want to be buttoned down, and that’s the pressure vessel. So the pressure vessel is not MacGyvered at all, because that’s where we work with Boeing, and NASA, and the University of Washington.

Once the pressure vessel is—you’re certain it’s not gonna collapse on everybody, everything else can fail. You know, it doesn’t matter. Your thrusters can go, your lights can go. All these things can fail. You’re still gonna be safe.

And so that allows you to do what you call MacGyver stuff (LAUGH). You know, we’ve made our own lights at times, and then we end up buying them.

You just have to be very careful that the life-support system, the sub itself, the oxygen system, the carbon dioxide scrubbing—all that stuff needs to be buttoned down.

When you get beyond that, if somebody says, “I wanna hang a GoPro off the side,” great. You can hang a GoPro off the side.

POGUE:   But surely I’m not the first layperson to say, “I can’t believe this isn’t more finished…solid…state of-the-art NASA…electronic.” I mean, you’re putting construction pipes as ballasts, you know?

RUSH:   People are surprised by it. Not people in the industry, because that’s what they do. I mean, the French had bags of stuff they dropped [as ballast]. The Russians used just steel shot, and with a little magnetic release, and they drop it.

There are even stories of Bob Ballard’s team, when they needed to go do something, they’d go into the kitchen and they’d grab, you know, a spaghetti strainer.

Or you’ll see—there are some images of $5 million ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] with duct tape. And I think Bob [Ballard] uses lacrosse balls and magnets (LAUGH). He puts a magnet and the grabber can grab the lacrosse ball, which has maybe a paintbrush at the end that he’s gonna use to wipe something off. (LAUGH) But it’s a lacrosse ball with a hole drilled in it and a magnet on the end. That, to me, is really exciting, being able to do that.

So it exists in everything. You know, as P.H. [Nargeolet] says, “All deep-diving subs are prototypes.”

POGUE:   The other thing I noticed was that you are continually experimenting, making changes, improving stuff.

RUSH:   Yeah. I mean, there are different pieces of what I would call the biz. If you look at sub-sea work, you have the oil and gas—commercial stuff—and that’s much more buttoned-down. You don’t change anything. Everything looks perfect.

Turns out, the perfect-looking stuff usually isn’t any better than the home-grown stuff. Which we found out, having spent a lotta money for the perfect stuff! (LAUGH)

But when you look at oceanography, when you look at what groups like Woods Hole, or Scripps, or any of the large research organizations, when they make landers, or they’re making ROVs and things like that, they tend to do things that are very similar.

Which is: they got a problem, they solve it.

When you’re in the prototype world, and somebody comes up and says, “Hey, we just found this thing we need to take a sample out of, and our manipulator only has that much throw.” And somebody says, “Well, we can duct tape a couple of pieces of balsa wood to it and grab it,” they go do that. It’s really about get the job done.

POGUE:   So from the beginning, the OceanGate expeditions to the Titanic are marketed as experimental.

RUSH:   Yes.

POGUE:   Are there ever clients who are taken aback and expected something more polished?

RUSH:   Yeah, yes. When we started out, we were much more…we sorta broadcast that we were going. We did have cases where a travel agent or a travel consultant would tell the client something different, and lead them to believe this was like going to the Four Seasons and background a zip-lining trip.

And we’ll never be like that. The people want to bucket it into that category of, “Hey, it’s very expensive, so it must be like luxury travel with a little bit of a risky component to it.” And it’s completely different.

And so now we’re very clear. We interview people, we make sure they know. And we don’t run into that problem.

POGUE:   And how about expectations of actually seeing the Titanic? I mean, you’re at the mercy of the wind, the waves—

RUSH:   The currents.

POGUE:   —and things that can go wrong with the submersible. How do you prepare people for the likelihood that they might not actually see the wreck?

RUSH:   Well, we start at the beginning which is: If there’s a mechanical delay, you get a full credit to do it again. If there’s a weather delay, you get a 50% credit, which is better than heli-skiing or going to your ski resort. So we—we’ve looked at things that we can control, things that we can’t control.

The currents can drop you anywhere, and so sometimes you’re gonna go to the stern [of the Titanic, which lies on the sea floor in two halves]. That’s still the wreck site, and actually, the stern is pretty cool, and very few people have been to the stern.

Most people wanna see the bow. But everybody’s seen the bow! (LAUGH) Not many people have seen the boilers in the back, and not many people have seen the debris field. And that actually is some of the more exciting stuff.

So as part of the education process of the mission specialists, it’s letting ’em know, “This is a huge area. We are subject to the currents when we drop down. You may not get to the bow, but we’re gonna get you to the wreck and you’re gonna see something nobody else has ever seen, and you’re gonna contribute to mankind’s knowledge of the deep ocean.”

A view of a Titanic boiler. 

Courtesy Shrenik Baldota

POGUE:   Are you a little bit eyeroll-y about, “Oh my God, they wanna see the bow again”? Are you tired of it?

RUSH:   On camera? (LAUGHTER)

I’m not tired of it. I don’t get as excited by the bow as people who haven’t been there before. There’s some great things—I love the reciprocating engines [on the Titanic], where you can see the electrical connections that are corroded over as you come up on the control box.

POGUE:   So you’ve been doing this two summers now, and five expeditions each summer. And each time you’re over the wreck for about five days?

RUSH:   Yes.

POGUE:   So in theory, if everything went perfectly, there could have been 25 dives per summer?

RUSH:   That’s correct.

POGUE:   So out of the 50 possible, how many have fate allowed you to actually send to the wreck?

RUSH:   So to the wreck site, we had six last year, plus an extra dive that wasn’t on the wreck site. So—yeah, so a lot less than we could have done.

POGUE:   So I’m a potential client. I’m like, “Oh my God. That’s a terrible record.”

RUSH:   Well, this year, every mission specialist who came out got to the wreck site.

Now, we had three days of bad weather on two missions, two days on another. We had some operational challenges at the beginning. But in the end, everybody got there.

And that’s why we have only six mission specialists on each mission. So you’ve got five days over the site; we only need two good diving days. And it turns out, you can usually get two good diving days, even with North Atlantic weather.

POGUE:   Oh, so you’re not even counting on five dives. You’re counting on two.

RUSH:   Exactly.

POGUE:   And you usually get that?

RUSH:   Yes. And we’ve done a lot to make sure we don’t have mechanical delays. So we have spare parts for everything. And that sorta proved itself out this year. We didn’t have any mechanical cancellations, and everybody who came to come to the Titanic, got to the Titanic.

POGUE:   When people do peer out that porthole and see the actual wreck, what happens to them? Have there been any great reactions?

RUSH:   I haven’t had anybody tear up on the dive, but certainly afterwards. But before you get there, I think what amazes most people is what you see in the two-and-a-half hours going through the water column, and seeing these bizarre alien creatures that go by.

Some people are glued to it. You’ll sit there and look for five minutes and just see what’s called marine snow, and it looks like snow. And it’s racing up as you’re racing down. And then every so often, some weird critter’ll come (LAUGH) and then it’ll go away.

Maybe we’ve gone down to, say, a thousand meters, 3,300 feet: You see life forms that no one’s ever seen before that just look bizarre. And that’s something that is very moving, when you just realize how many—unusual creatures are out there that no one’s ever seen.

You’ll see bioluminescence. You’ll see different colors pop ’cause most of the communication, once you get below a thousand meters, is bioluminescent. Once your eyes adjust, you see these flickers of critters chatting with each other.

And right about the time you’re goin’, “That’s amazing,” it’s gone. So a lotta people will just be fixed in the dome, watching this cool stuff.

Then when they get down, we start heading toward the wreck. And then you get it on sonar and you start seeing the image. And then you get up on it, and then I think universally everybody’s amazed how beautiful a wreck it is.

The colors—when we get within about four or five feet, all the reds and oranges start to come out, and the greens and the blues. And it is just a picturesque wreck. I think that’s what people don’t appreciate, is just how incredibly beautiful it is.

Editor’s Note:

Boeing provided “CBS News Sunday Morning” with the following statement: “Boeing was not a partner on the Titan and did not design or build it.”

NASA also told AL.com this week that it “did not conduct testing and manufacturing (of the submersible) via its workforce or facilities.”

The University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory stated this week that its prior work with OceanGate resulted in a different vessel that could travel to a depth of just 500 meters (or one-third of a mile), named the Cyclops 1.

“The Laboratory was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the Titan submersible used in the RMS Titanic expedition,” UW told the Daily Herald of Everett, Wash.

Inside the OceanGate Titan tragedy



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