The wreck of the Titanic lies about 2.4 miles below sea level. Only five submersibles in the world can carry people to that depth—and four of them have been retired or reassigned.

The one remaining sub is something special. First, it holds five people comfortably (instead of two or three uncomfortably). Second, it’s the only one made of carbon fiber. 

And third, you can buy your way onto it. For $250,000, OceanGate Expeditions will take you down to visit the world’s most famous shipwreck. Deep sea is the new outer space.

So when OceanGate invited David Pogue and a “CBS Sunday Morning” crew to join the latest expedition, they jumped at the chance. Here’s what happened during their eight days at sea.

Intro

Theme begins.

On the night of April 14, 1912, on her maiden voyage, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. She tipped nose down, broke in half, and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. More than 1500 people died.

The wreck was discovered in 1985. Since then, scientists are about they only people who’ve seen the Titanic in person. Until now.

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

Episode Transcript

Season 2, Episode 2: Back to the Titanic. Part 1.

Yeah, that’s right—there’s going to be a part 2, next week. Because this is a big story.

Now, starting in January 2023, we’re going to treat you to weekly episodes of “Unsung Science.” So this is kind of a bonus episode, a companion to my “CBS Sunday Morning” story about the same adventure.

‘Cause in the podcast, I’ve got a lot more time to tell you about my little getaway to the Titanic. My little extraordinary, thrilling, heartbreaking, maybe a little controversial getaway.

I’m guessing you’ve heard of the Titanic—the supposedly unsinkable passenger liner that set out to steam from Europe to New York—but struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage? I think there might have been a movie about it at one point…

In 1985, a team of American and French explorers found the Titanic, using a robotic underwater sub. Here’s oceanographer Bob Ballard, giving a talk about that fateful day: 

BOB: When I found the Titanic, all of a sudden I came in here and it was a wall of steel, rising up out of sight. That is the bilge keel…

For the next couple of decades, a handful of submersibles visited the wreck, primarily for scientific purposes. But by 2005, interest had pretty much died off—until this guy came along.

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

RUSH: No.

POGUE: Okay. We’re wrapped!

This is Stockton Rush. If his first and last name ring any kind of a bell, then you must be a history nut. Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush were two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

This Rush directly descended from both men.

But Stockton’s dream was not to become a statesman.

RUSH: In my whole life, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was part of the tail end of the Apollo crowd. 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.

POGUE: Oh, no.

RUSH: I had this epiphany that I didn’t want — it wasn’t about going to space. It was about exploring. It was about finding new life forms. 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. 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.

His baby is an undersea adventure company called OceanGate. For $250,000, he’ll take you to the bottom of the North Atlantic in a custom-made, experimental submersible, to see the wreck of the Titanic for yourself.

RUSH: It’s a very unusual business. It’s its own category. It’s a new type of travel. It’s sort of on the cutting edge, I think, of the whole adventure travel movement. 

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

RUSH: Yes, I think from a procedure standpoint, it’s similar. So, we go through a lot of checklists, a lot of procedures, a lot of sign-offs. The process, the life support systems are basically identical. 

POGUE: Who are the typical clientele for these missions?

RUSH: So, we have clients that are Titanic enthusiasts, which we refer to as Titaniacs. 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.

By the way—the cost of an OceanGate Titanic adventure has not always been a quarter of a million dollars. The first summer of operation, 2021, a ticket cost only half that much. But then Stockton Rush saw how much people were willing to pay to go to space—and he thought, “Man, I’m leaving money on the table!”

I did not pay a quarter of a million dollars. Rush invited “CBS Sunday Morning” to join his 2022 expedition to the Titanic. And somehow, I got the gig. Thank you, karma.

I mean, inviting media like that is kind of a risky move. If everything goes well, Stockton Rush gets a national news story about his business. But if things go wrong, well, there’s gonna be a camera filming all of it.

From a news perspective, two parts of this OceanGate story were interesting to us. First of all, nobody else is going to the Titanic anymore.

POGUE: What other institutions are doing this regular visit thing to the Titanic? 

RUSH: No one is doing it to the Titanic. So, it’s nobody. The last time anybody went to the Titanic was a brief trip in 2019. And, before that, the last time anybody went in a submersible, I think, was 2005, 2007. So, no one has been down there and no one is planning to go back, except us.

POGUE: Wow. Why isn’t it the most studied, visited archaeological site in the world?

RUSH: Well, I mean, it’s very difficult to do. It costs a lot to get that ship out there. 

The other thing we found interesting was that this isn’t just a tourism outfit. Every OceanGate expedition to the Titanic also brings scientists aboard, doing actual research. In effect, the paying passengers are subsidizing the science.

POGUE: 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. Every dive has a scientific purpose or a research or an exploration purpose, but it is funded by somebody who is looking for an adventure travel experience.

Now, OceanGate insists on addressing its paying customers with the clumsy five-syllable term “mission specialist.” Before our shoot this summer, they even emailed me a document that basically said, In thy news reporting, thou shalt not use the terms “tourists,” “customers,” or “passengers.” The term is “mission specialists.” 

Well, whatever.

It is true that these people are invited to do actual work on the sub all week.

POGUE: And, how real are the jobs being done by those folks? I mean, is it keep your —

RUSH: Makework or not? Yes.

POGUE: Yes, makework.

RUSH: No. It can be — there are things that are maybe less critical, for example, reviewing video content. You know, you’re not going to hurt anybody if you mess that up. We’ve sort of identified what those things are: cleaning out the sub when it comes back. We got to put new supplies in. Closing the dome, you can double check that easily. So, a lot of those things are easy to do.

The Titanic lies 400 miles southeast of St Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. And yes, that’s how they say it: NEWfoundland. Not newFOUNDland, and not NEWfoundlund. It’s NEWfoundland.

And what’s so special about St Johns? This town happens to sit at the easternmost tippy-tip of all of North America. If you want to sail to the Titanic efficiently, you start there, because that’s as close as land gets.

David Pogue self-video: Welcome to St. Johns. A place so special, it’s got its own time zone: 90 minutes ahead of New York City. 

That’s the third banjo player I’ve seen today.

Our home for the next nine days was going to be a gigantic, blue, industrial ship called the Horizon Arctic, which is ordinarily used for hauling around floating oil rigs and sometimes icebergs. Stockton Rush had rented it and its crew for the summer, to carry us and his experimental submersible. 

Now, the back of the ship is a huge, flat, open deck. It’s ordinarily filled with enormous oil-rig components. And the front is the ship part, and it’s 8 decks tall. So the whole ship looks kind of front-heavy. 

But on that back deck, shining in the summer sun, there it was: Stockton Rush’s submersible. It’s one of only five subs in the world capable of reaching Titanic depths without imploding—and the one that I’d be spending 12 hours in myself, if I got lucky.

The sub is called the Titan. The main, center section looks like a shiny white tube, about minivan length. It’s made of five-inch-thick carbon fiber—which nobody’s ever used in a submersible before. I asked Rush about that.

POGUE: And surely, there were some pushback when you’re, 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. When you’re trying something outside the box, people inside the box think you’re nuts.

POGUE: And, what’s the virtue of the carbon fiber?

RUSH: It’s three times better on a strength-to-buoyancy basis than titanium. And so, that’s in underwater. That’s what you care about. /By having a light hull, you have a smaller vessel, therefore you can have a smaller ship, everything starts to get not easier, but it’s different and a little bit easier.

At each end of the white tube is a shiny silver dome. They’re like end caps.

KYLE: We’ve got the forward dome, three and a quarter-inch thick titanium. Another hemisphere in the back, another titanium hemisphere. 

This is mission director Kyle Bingham, giving me a tour. There’s also a weird-looking stub mounted to the back dome, which he calls the rear cage.

KYLE: This rear cage holds the batteries, the electronics, these spears, which are the brains, and a little bit of foam in the back to trim the whole thing up. 

The front end cap has a 22-inch round window, made of seven-inch-thick Plexiglas, so you can see out. When you get to the bottom of the ocean, that’s your view of the Titanic. That, and whatever the exterior cameras are showing you.

Stockton gave me a tour of the inside.

RUSH: Shoes off. That’s customary. 

POGUE: Okay. Thank you. 

POGUE: Wow. It’s like…It’s like a minivan. 

RUSH: Yeah, it’s a Suburban. It’s a little bigger than you would think. 

POGUE: It’s a good size. 

RUSH: So this is not your grandfather’s submersible. Most of the deep diving subs were made with a purpose. It’s a science tool, so there wasn’t a lot of thought given to creature comforts, which tend to be spheres. They’re small, they’re cramped. They don’t have a toilet. 

POGUE: Toilet? 

RUSH: We have a toilet. 

Well, kind of. If you have to go to the bathroom during the dive, you can crawl into the window end of the sub and hang up a black cloth for privacy. There’s an 18-inch square box on the floor that contains Zip-lock bags—and that’s your toilet. Stockton promises that they turn up the music really loud while you’re in the…bathroom. 

There are a couple of touchscreen PC monitors on the floor of the sub, but otherwise, there are no controls in this thing!

POGUE: Wait a minute. I’ve seen submersibles, and they are banks of controls, cockpit after cockpit.

RUSH: Exactly. Yeah. It’s like, yeah, you can have a lot of buttons and things like that. Or you can use modern technology to make it simple.

POGUE: So how do you drive it?

RUSH: Um, we run the whole thing with this game controller. 

POGUE: Come on. 

RUSH: This thing is made for a 16 year old to throw it around, and we keep a couple of spares.  

I’m not kidding. He drives his multimillion-dollar sub with a white plastic Xbox game controller.

And that’s not the only part of this sub that seemed kind of…jerry-rigged. Take, for example, the ceiling lights.

RUSH: So yes, I got these from Camper World and they are LED lights in here. And um, a nice little decorative feature. 

And then there are the cameras:

RUSH: We have a number of cameras that are actually security cameras. A lot of subs have custom made video capture systems because it gives them a lot of flexibility. But we got rid of that and just saying, look, we just want to capture the image. No, we are– we can use these off the shelf components. 

Later, when I interviewed Rush at his headquarters near Seattle, I asked him about that.

POGUE: It seems like this submersible has some elements of MacGyvery jerryriggedness . You’re like, “we bought these handles off camperworld.com”. You’re like, “these thrusters are modified from some other purpose.” 

RUSH: I don’t know if I’d use that description of it. But, there are certain things that you want to be buttoned down, and that’s the pressure vessel. 

The pressure vessel is the carbon-fiber tube—the part that keeps the human beings alive. 

RUSH: (cont’d) So, the pressure vessel is not MacGyver at all, because that’s where we work with Boeing and NASA and the University of Washington. That part, once the pressure vessel is — you’re certain it’s not going to collapse on everybody, everything else can fail. It doesn’t matter. Your thrusters can go. Your lights can go. All these things can fail. You’re still going to be safe. And so, that allows you to do what you call MacGyver stuff. 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 that needs to be buttoned down.

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

RUSH: People are surprised by it, and not people in the industry, because that’s what they do. I mean, the French had bags of stuff they dropped. The Russians used just steel shot with a little magnetic release and they drop it. All deep diving subs are prototypes.

Please remember that line: All deep-diving subs are prototypes. That should be a T-shirt.

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

RUSH: Oh, yes. Yes. When we started out, we did have cases where a travel agent or a travel consultant would lead them to believe this was like going to the Four Seasons and booking a zip lining trip, and we’ll never be like that. 

Now, I’ve been the host of 20 “NOVA” science specials on PBS. And I’ve done a lot of shenanigans to make science telegenic. I’ve gone hang gliding, I’ve been given electric shocks, I’ve been subjected to extreme temperatures, I’ve pet 13-foot sharks in the Bahamas. But I’ve never feared for my life.

Gotta tell you—this was different. I mean, here are just a few choice excerpts from the waiver you have to sign:

I’ll bet there’s some hilarious music you could add…

“The experimental submersible vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body. Any failure could cause severe injury or death.

The support vessel is an industrial vessel not designed for passenger operations and present many hazards, including…property damage, injury, disability, or death.  

If I choose to assist in the servicing of the submersible, I will be exposed to high-pressure gases, high-voltage electrical systems, and other dangers that could lead to property damage, injury, disability, and death. 

I hereby assume full responsibility for the risk of bodily injury, disability, death.”

Oh, great. Where do I sign?

I mean, I was actually scared. 

* last year

Last year, at the end of a Titanic dive, OceanGate had trouble getting the sub back onto the ship. Those poor mission specialists …they wound up spending 27 hours in the sub.

Granted, the company says the sub has 96 hours’ worth of oxygen and power. And Stockton isn’t exactly an amateur. As a young man, he designed and built his own fiberglass airplane, which he still flies. Titan isn’t even his first submersible.

But it sure doesn’t help your anxiety much when someone says stuff like this:

RUSH: 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 going to take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.

Bottom line, the last couple of nights before the expedition, I didn’t sleep AT ALL. Did I want to die for a TV story—and a really great podcast episode?

I mainly worried about three things. First, I worried that the sub would collapse under the pressure—6,000 pounds per square inch. That’s about the pressure you’d feel on your chest if 46 school buses parked on your sternum. 

But Rush reminded me that the deeper you go, the tighter the water presses those titanium endcaps onto the carbon-fiber tube. The whole thing becomes more waterproof the deeper it goes. OH! Ok.

Second, I worried about running out of air. The Titan uses the same kind of oxygen scrubbers that they use on submarines and spacecraft—they convert carbon dioxide back into oxygen—but what if that system breaks down? 

Well, I learned that the Titan also carries chemical scrubber strips that you can break out and hang from the ceiling in an emergency. And as a backup backup, it’s got plain old scuba oxygen tanks in storage under the floor. Oh really?

But I also worried about getting back to the surface. Exactly what kind of ballast did this thing have? According to Kyle Bingham, a LOT.

First, there are three enormous, heavy, black, beat-up lead construction pipes on each side of the sub. 

KYLE: These triple weights, we call ‘em, are hydraulically driven. So we operate ‘em inside, doesn’t take any electricity, can be done manually, and those drop away and gain us a lot of buoyancy. 

Dropping that much weight onto the sea floor means the sub starts rising.

But what if the hydraulic system breaks? Well, then they have roll weights. 

KYLE: Ah, so, we’ve got these weights here on the side, these are roll weights, we can actually roll the sub and those come off, and that gains us some buoyancy to come back to the surface.

These are pipes that sit on a shelf that juts out from either side of the sub, held in place only by gravity. If everyone inside the sub shifts their weight to one side, the sub tips enough to let these pipes roll off. 

If that doesn’t work, there are ballast bags, full of metal shot, hanging below the sub.

KYLE: These bags down below, we drop those off using motors and electric fingers. 

OK. But what if the electronics go out, and the hydraulics fail, and everyone inside has passed out unconscious? 

KYLE: There’s fusible links within these that actually can dissolve and come back in time if it’s drop off. 

Fusible links are self-dissolving bonds. After 16 hours in seawater, those bonds disintegrate, the weight bags drop off automatically, and you go back to the surface.

And even those four systems aren’t the end of it. The sub’s thrusters can also push it up; the pilot can jettison the sub’s legs as dead weight; and there’s even an airbag they can inflate to provide buoyancy. 

All told, that’s seven different ways to get the sub back up to the surface.

POGUE: Wow. Those are a lot of backups of backups. 

KYLE: Yes. 

POGUE: I guess you really don’t want to be stuck down there. 

KYLE: Going home is required. 

I asked Stockton Rush about the whole danger thing.

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. 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. But, the scary part for most people is going down to 6,000 PSI.

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

RUSH: Yes.

POGUE: So, once we’re down there, what ARE the things to worry about? 

RUSH: What I worry about most are things that will stop me from being able to get to the surface. Overhangs, fish nets, entanglement hazards. And, that’s just a technique, piloting technique. It’s pretty clear— if it’s an overhang, don’t go under it. If there is a net, don’t go near it. So, you can avoid those if you are just slow and steady.

Most of our fellow expeditioners were rich people seeking adventure, like a hedge-fund guy with his son, an artificial-intelligence pioneer who’d sold a bunch of companies, and Shrenik Baldota, who runs a massive industrial conglomerate in India. 

…use whichever you think sounds best!

POGUE: And you have a nickname?

SHRENIK: Yeah, they call me the wild monk.

POGUE: The wild monk?

SHRENIK: Yeah, because I look like a monk. I’m very calm, but I have these extreme interests that I do. Going into a live volcano in Vanuatu, two times to Antarctica, on an edge of space flight at 70,000 feet on a MiG-29, swimming with the blue whales, catching crocodiles in Botswana with National Geographic.

POGUE: You’ve done all this?

SHRENIK: Yeah

POGUE: You’ve witnessed this week, and previous weeks, many dives getting canceled. Have you talked your brain through what will happen if you don’t get to go down at all?

SHRENIK: I’ll come back again. 

Ha! Fateful words, as you’ll see in a bit.

And then…there was Renata Rojas. She is not a hedge-fund dude or owner of a major industrial complex. She works in a bank.

POGUE: You don’t strike me as a multimillionaire.

RENATA: I am not a multimillionaire. I’ve been saving to do this my entire life.

POGUE: When you told people that you were spending almost the price of a small house to do this one-day trip, did you get any reactions?

RENATA: Most people think I’m crazy by spending all this money and trying to go down to see Titanic. My response is, “Dreams don’t have a price.” Some people want a Ferrari. Some people have children. Some people buy a house. I wanted to go to Titanic.

She’s not kidding. She really wants to see the Titanic.

RENTA: I’m trying to fulfill a dream. A quest that I’ve had since I’m a child. I saw the movie “A Night to Remember” in black and white, and the mystery of Titanic having vanished. Something so large and magnificent, having vanished from the face of the earth and nobody knew where it was.

 “A Night to Remember” is a famous 1934 movie about the sinking.

RENATA: So I started to do a little bit of investigation of how I could go to Titanic. Back then, it was only $40,000, which I do not have. So I started saving my money. And by the time I got to the $40,000, it was $60,000, and then it became $80,000. And I just kept saving up and trying to get into an expedition. Finally, in 2010, I got into the deep ocean expeditions, uh, bicentennial dives. But those expeditions were not only postponed twice, but then canceled. Then the Mirs were retired.

The Mirs were a pair of Russian submersibles—the same ones that James Cameron rode down to the Titanic when he filmed scenes for his movie. The Mirs are no longer in service.

RENATA: (cond’td) So the quest became trying to find a private submersible company that would be willing to go to Titanic. And I stumbled into Ocean Gate. 

She was the company’s very first customer. She joined the very first two expeditions, the first two weeks of operation in 2021. But the Titan had mechanical problems the first week, and never made it down to the Titanic. And the second week, the weather was too bad to dive. Of course, she could have stayed on board for a third week…

POGUE: But you didn’t.

RENATA: I had to leave. I had to leave. My father at the time got sick, so I wanted to go down to Mexico to, to, uh, to see how he was. And so I went back home.

A year went by. Since she’d missed her chance the first year, OceanGate gave her a free do-over this summer. Renata Rojas was finally going to achieve her dream! Except…her bad luck struck again, this time in the form of air-travel hell.

RENATA: Well, there was 4th of July weekend and Canada Day. I got stuck in the airports, my flights got cancelled, and I ended up landing in St John’s too late to meet the boat. Almost seems like the universe wants to tell you something, and for a second, you just want to give up. You do think, all this effort for what?

POGUE: That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Because you have been wanting to do this for…

RENATA: 40 years.

POGUE: And at least twice now it’s been in your grasp and then taken away.

RENATA: At least three times. 

POGUE: Three times…

RENATA: …has been in my grasp.

POGUE: So psychologically, what do you chant to yourself? What do you tell yourself? To not lose your mind.

RENATA: You just cry a lot. And just keep the dream alive because it’s something that I have I have to do.

POGUE: I think it’s next week, Renata.

RENATA: I hope so. If it’s not next week, it will happen. Next year—maybe it’s next year.

Would Renata ever get to see the darned shipwreck? Would I? Will you? The answers to those questions and more—after the ads!

BREAK

These OceanGate expeditions are 9 days long. The Titanic is two days away from Saint Johns, and you five days floating above the wreck. So in theory, OceanGate could visit the Titanic as many as five times during our trip—one 12-hour dive per day. 

The thing is, in two summers of operation, OceanGate has never made five dives to the wreck. On a typical expedition, they get down there twice. 

I mean, we’re talking about the North Atlantic here. Remember the movie “The Perfect Storm?” 

That’s the place. The weather can be pretty terrible out here. Also, the sub often has problems of its own. As a wise man once said, “All deep-diving subs are prototypes.”

We already knew that on our five-day visit, the seas would be too rough to launch the sub on days 2 and 3 of. So that left days 1, 4, and 5. The CBS crew was scheduled for Day 1; paying customers would be filling the sub on days 4 and 5.

But the night before, mission director Kyle Bingham reviewed the wave heights for our Titanic voyage in the morning. 

KYLE: Sea states out there, around 6am when we’re launching, we’re looking at six feet, and then it kinda continues to climb through that part of the day. 

And sure enough: the seas were too rough to launch the sub on Day 1. 

I mean, not gonna lie. I was pretty crushed about not making it to see the Titanic.

On the other hand, Rush proposed a consolation dive, a CBS News special: We’d dive the Continental Shelf, the Grand Banks, 80 miles away. Rush said we might see shark breeding grounds, stunning, towering underwater cliffs, and—maybe marine creatures nobody’s ever seen before. 

So on the morning of our dive, we awoke at 4am. DANG I was exhausted—and excited.

POGUE: Weather’s bad today at the Titanic, so we sailed 80 miles through night to the Continental Shelf, where the CBS crew is being offered the chance to go down in the sub. Not nearly as deep, not nearly not as long as a Titanic dive, but it’s still gonna be a thrill.

Five of us climbed into the Titan: Stockton Rush, the pilot; Steve Ross, a deep-sea marine biologist; Nelson White, an Indigenous artist and friend of the company; producer Anthony Laudato, wielding the camera; and me.

RUSH: You’ll feel a lot of bumping, sometimes there’s some banging—don’t worry about it. All that can happen is something on the outside can get hurt. We’re not getting hurt. We are now the safest five people on the planet.

The crew closed the front titanium end cap and sealed us in with 17 bolts—from the outside.

Guy: OK…it’s going, a couple more inches…

POGUE: I forgot to tell you. I have severe claustrophobia. Is that a problem?

Now, there’s one key part of this sub system that I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s sort of complicated. Complicated, but cool. 

You might have wondered at this point: What’s the difference between a submarine and a submersible? A submarine has enough juice to leave port, do its trip, and come back, all under its own power. A submersible has much less power; you need a surface ship to launch it and recover it.

Most submersibles get lowered into the water by a crane mounted on the ship, usually an A-frame crane. But Stockton Rush wanted to avoid that system. 

RUSH: There is nothing dumber than doing anything on the surface of the water. You do it underwater or in the air. It’s that transition where the problems happen. It’s when you get that sub out of the water and now it’s not in the water and it’s not on the deck, it’s hanging on a pendulum, that’s the dangerous part.

So, think about, you have a ten-ton sub, and a multi-thousand-ton ship, and they’re in bad waves. So, anybody can launch when it’s dead calm. But when the waves are there, these things are doing different stuff.  They’re banging into stuff. 

The typical solution is get a really big ship and a really big. Well, that’s super expensive.

Eventually, he heard about a radically different system of launching, which would let his sub operate from any ship at all, even one that doesn’t have a crane.

And this is how it works.

The sub is bolted onto a huge, metal, floating platform, which the crew refers to by its technical name—“the platform.” It’s a silver steel 15-by-25-foot platform, about four feet tall, with the sub attached in the middle. The whole apparatus spends most of its time sitting on the back deck of the ship. 

RUSH: The sub has its launch platform. That’s how it’s operated. It’s not operated without its platform. 

POGUE: Okay. 

When it comes time to dive, they roll the platform down this massive, bright-orange ramp off the back of the ship into the water. At this point, 

RUSH: There’re four compartments. We release the air, they fill with water. The whole thing goes underwater. 

Pogue: How far down?

RUSH: About 30 feet.

And why do the platform and sub sink down together? Because the water is calm down there. After all,  

RUSH: There is nothing dumber than doing anything on the surface of the water.

Next, scuba divers unclip the sub from the platform. And yes, you’re hearing the actual sound of our actual diver, doing the actual unclipping. He wore a GoPro just for us! 

At this point, the sub is now floating free. The pilot activates the thrusters, and off they zoom to the their deep-sea destination! 

12 hours later, they do all of this in reverse: The sub rises to the surface and glides onto the platform. The divers clip it in. The crew pumps the platform’s tanks full of air. It rises back to the surface, and a winch drags the whole thing back up the ramp onto the ship. Easy as pie! In theory.

In practice, there were a lot of checklists, procedures, and bumps. 

RADIO: Titans are you a go or no go?

NELSON: Titan is a go. 

They need motorboats to drag the platform down that giant orange ramp, and it’s a jerky, balky ride. Stockton suggested that we brace ourselves—on each other.

RUSH: /When we do the submergence,  we’ll probably have you to put your feet in the dome, and then we can see your knees on your back. 

POGUE: Really?

RUSH: Get to know your neighbor.

POGUE: It feels pretty steep! Six Flags Great Adventure.

Finally, it happened.

POGUE: We’re tipping! We are in the water, people!

And suddenly, we were floating. We could hear a lot of clanking, and out of our little round window, we could see the crew running around on the platform, preparing to sink it—and us.

RUSH: So we just completed Phase 1 of the launch process, which is launching the sub and platform from the back deck. Look outside and we’ve got some 6-8 foot swells every so often, but generally calm. That went fairly smoothly, and they’re gonna come and prepare the platform for the next phase, which is the sinking.

The water was aqua and bubbly as we went down. 

RUSH: We’re under water.

POGUE: Oh we are! We’re under water! 12 meters…That’s something like…36 feet? (jokes) Hull integrity: holding!

This was it. This was the precise moment when the divers went to unclip our sub from the platform. And that’s precisely when Kyle, up in the bridge of the ship, radioed us.

RUSH: Go ahead, topside.

RADIO: Looks like we lost a couple of buoys.

RUSH: In that they sunk all the way under, or they came undone? 

RADIO: They came undone.

NELSON: I can see them floating around in the background.

RUSH: It’s not an exact science. Right down to knot-tying!

POGUE: So apparently those floats there came off the platform. And that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

Rush had to make a hard decision in a hurry. Do we care about a couple of stupid buoys, when underwater cliffs and shark breeding grounds are calling out to us?

Well, this is Stockton Rush we’re talking about! With a knowing smile and a steely glint in his eye, he picked up the radio handset, held it to his mouth, and announced his decision.

Oh gosh, look at the time—this episode has gotten super long! 

I think this is as good a cliffhanger as any. Let’s pause here—and in the next episode of “Unsung Science,” I’ll finish up the story. You’ll hear about whales, tales of tsunamis, freak solar phenomena, a ship-driving lesson, a sub lost in the dark—and maybe, if you’re very, very good, a visit to the Titanic.

Credits

You’ve just listened to another episode of “Unsung Science” with David Pogue. Don’t forget that the entire library of shows, along with written transcripts, await at unsungscience.com. 

This podcast is a joint venture of Simon & Schuster and “CBS Sunday Morning,” and it’s produced by PRX Productions.  

For Simon & Schuster, the Executive Producers are Richard Rhorer and Chris Lynch.  

The PRX production team is Jocelyn Gonzales, Morgan Flannery, Pedro Rafael Rosado and Morgan Church.

Jesi Nelson composed the Unsung Science theme music, our fact checker is Kristina Rebelo, and Olivia Noble fixed the transcripts.

* new end credits

For more of my stuff, visit davidpogue.com or follow me on Twitter, @pogue. We’d love it if you’d like and follow Unsung Science wherever you get your podcasts. And spread the word, will you?