By Leo Middleton
When the submersible vessel known as the Titan, owned by the Oceangate company, imploded with five people on board on its way to exploring the wreckage of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in June, the deadly accident was met with a mixture of public horror and sympathy. But reports soon turned to questions that had been raised for years about the safety of the submersible’s design that were apparently ignored by Oceangate’s CEO Stockton Rush, who was one of the five killed in the accident.
The OceanGate debacle illustrated both the perilous nature of the deep ocean and the limits of the public’s sympathy for the exploits of extravagant billionaires. Yet OceanGate is far from the first company to try to plumb these depths for a quick buck. The history of submersible technologies is littered with corporate interests, but the usual customer isn’t the adventurous wealthy, it’s the U.S. military.
Oceanography is a relatively young field, in scientific terms. Although humans have explored the ocean for much of human history, most human insights about the ocean were only canonized into western science in the 20th century. The expansion of the study of oceanography is a direct result of the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. In the recently released book, Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean, Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes argues that the influence of military funding has shaped the field of oceanography profoundly. Our understanding of the deep sea, and our ability to explore it with submersible technology, is a great example of this fact.
As the growth of submarine warfare began, with the initiation of the nuclear submarine program in 1951, the necessity of understanding the deep ocean became clear to military commanders. Oceanographers, some willingly, some unwittingly, started to play an important role in maintaining the submarine portion of the American Nuclear Triad. In order to maintain a large fleet of submarines, the military needed to be able to effectively communicate with them. Understanding the transmission of acoustic signals through the ocean therefore became central to the field of oceanography. Locating downed submarines for search and rescue, particularly those containing nuclear weapons, is another key requirement for maintaining a submarine program: and so, the submersible was born.
The wreckage of the Titanic was first discovered and then explored in 1985 by a team led by Robert Ballard. This was an early success of Alvin, the poster boy of submersible technology. Alvin was commissioned in 1964 by the Office for Naval Research (ONR), primarily to install and maintain hydrophones as part of the U.S. Navy’s ‘Project Artemis’: an attempt to improve the ‘Sound Surveillance System’ for detecting Soviet submarines. Alvin and its successors are operated and maintained by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, known as the ‘oceanographic institute’ in the movie Jaws. Although a private, non-profit research organization, Woods Hole and its employees (such as myself) owe much of our funding to the ONR.
Alvin’s first success story came in the form of a military calamity: the Palomares Disaster. In 1966, in a shocking turn of events, a U.S. Air Force bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs collided in midair with a refueling plane. Seven people were killed, and the planes came down over Palomares in southern Spain, along with all four bombs. If they had detonated, the bombs had the capacity to create a thousand-kilometer radius of devastation across Spain and southern Europe. Despite assuring the public that there was no chance of these fallen bombs detonating accidentally, privately there was worry within the military ranks about a potential disaster. Three of the bombs were swiftly located on land: one of which had broken apart without detonating and caused significant radiation damage in Palomares that lasts to this day. However, the fourth was believed to have landed in the ocean. Alvin was dispatched, and after eighty days of non-stop searching, they managed to locate and recover the H-bomb from the ocean floor. Although often phrased as a heroic story (‘Little Alvin and the lost H bomb’), this event brought humanity perilously close to catastrophe.
The scientific uses for Alvin have always been relatively few and far between, despite being well loved and thought of by the American public as a research vessel. The discovery of the Titanic was in fact only possible because of the military’s interest in investigating the remains of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. These were nuclear submarines lost at sea in 1963 and 1968 respectively, along with 228 lives combined. The search for the Titanic was a suitable cover story for using Alvin to search the wreckages of the submarines for potential environmental damage from the leaking reactors and weapons. Given additional time on this military mission, the scientists were permitted to search for the Titanic wreckage, and managed to find it, despite the extreme time pressures exerted by the military.
Although there have been some science success-stories from submersible technology, such as the discovery of geothermal vents, most oceanographers have no use for these deep-sea vehicles. There is a myth in the eyes of the public that submersibles are regularly used by scientists for ocean research. This idea serves the interests of the Navy in maintaining public support and funding for technology that is primarily used to further military interests rather than advance scientific knowledge beneficial to humankind.
Leo Middleton is a Postdoctoral Investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.