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A former passenger details what it's like inside the missing Titan submersible

This undated photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions in June 2021 shows the company's Titan submersible.
AP
This undated photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions in June 2021 shows the company's Titan submersible.

The missing submersible that was on its way to view the wreckage from the Titanic relies on a number of "off-the-shelf parts" including a video game controller to steer it, but is also equipped with several mechanisms that can bring it back to the surface during an emergency, according to a former passenger.

CBS Sunday Morning correspondent David Pogue went on the OceanGate Titan in November for an assignment, and said it was like being in a "minivan without seats."

"There's a couple of computer screens and there is one round window at the end, about 21 inches across," he told NPR on Tuesday. "And when you're visiting the Titanic, you take turns looking out the porthole."

"There are two pilots, one of which is Stockton Rush, the sub's designer and the CEO, and he drives the sub with a game controller ... It has the right levers and buttons to go up, down, left, right and so on. And his argument is, it might look cheap and consumery, but it's a tried and true, very reliable component and it does exactly what we need."

"The main thing, though, is that the part we care about, that carbon fiber tube ... was designed in conjunction with NASA and the University of Washington, and was intended to be failsafe."

As of Tuesday evening, the international rescue effort to find the sub and the five people on board was ongoing.

In an interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, Pogue details what it's like preparing to travel on the Titan, and the potential scenarios that its current riders might have encountered.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the preparation that went into his trip on the Titan

We got in-depth tours of the Titan itself inside and outside. We learned the parts of it. There really is no safety gear in there except for a fire extinguisher and fire masks, which we practiced putting on and taking off. That's pretty much it, because there's not much you can do if something goes wrong.

What you can do is rise to the surface. And there are seven different ways to return to the surface. Just redundancy after redundancy. They can drop sandbags, they can drop lead pipes, they can inflate a balloon, they can use the thrusters. They can even jettison the legs of the sub to lose weight. And some of these, by the way, work even if the power is out and even if everyone on board is passed out. So there's sort of a dead man's switch such that the hooks holding on to sandbags dissolve after a certain number of hours in the water, release the sandbags and bring you to the surface, even if you're unconscious.

On why the missing vessel has not yet been located

We really have no idea. I mean, the waves are six feet high. It's all whitecaps. The sub itself is white. I don't know how an airplane is going to expect to find it in hundreds of miles of rough seas. So for all we know, they are floating somewhere on the surface right now. And the tragedy of that is you're bolted in from the outside. There's 18 bolts that seal you inside. You can't get out without assistance from an external crew. So that would be the real nightmare scenario: they're alive and floating and unable to escape.

On the problems he ran into during his trip

My trip was not smooth. We made it 37 feet down and then they ran into a mechanical problem and we had to abort the dive. I was devastated, and crushed, and did not see it coming. But I have since learned that these dives rarely go to plan. With each of these expeditions that OceanGate makes, they spend five days over the [Titanic] shipwreck. And typically of those five days, they managed to get down only once or twice. And this season it's been zero.

Visiting the remains of the once-great Titanic has become a tourist drawcard in recent years.
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Visiting the remains of the once-great Titanic has become a tourist drawcard in recent years.

On what compels someone to take a journey on the Titan — despite the dangers

These dives take place in international waters. So there is no governing body. And I will tell you that when we boarded the surface vessel, we signed waivers that would curl your toes. I mean, it was basically a list of eight paragraphs describing ways that you could be permanently disabled or killed.

So this is not a tourist company or an airline, you know, for the masses. This is for rich adrenaline junkie adventurers who thrive on the risk. It's a lifestyle that not all of us may be able to identify with. But for them, you know, the risk is the life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Tinbete Ermyas