Beware Fools With Money

There’s a long article about the Titan submersible that imploded a few days ago that’s worth reading. It’s by Ben Taub at The New Yorker, and if you hit a paywall open it in an incognito or inprivate window. I don’t subscribe to the New Yorker but can manage to read something in it now and then if I’m persistent.

The main character in it is Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate. Rush is depicted as someone with such unbounded faith in his own greatness that he didn’t believe the laws of physics applied to him. A number of people within the submersible industry, such as it is, knew or suspected that Rush’s submersible was a lemon. Author Ben Taub walks the reader through how decisions were made to build the thing the way it was built, which was basically the way Rush wanted it built so he could take passengers below to see the Titanic. Potential safety problems, when brouht to Rush’s attention, were dismissed out of hand. People tiptoed around him because he had a lot of money and influence and could ruin careers.

Here’s a sample:

“Stockton strategically structured everything to be out of U.S. jurisdiction” for its Titanic pursuits, the former senior OceanGate employee told me. “It was deliberate.” In a legal filing, the company reported that the submersible was “being developed and assembled in Washington, but will be owned by a Bahamian entity, will be registered in the Bahamas and will operate exclusively outside the territorial waters of the United States.” Although it is illegal to transport passengers in an unclassed, experimental submersible, “under U.S. regulations, you can kill crew,” McCallum told me. “You do get in a little bit of trouble, in the eyes of the law. But, if you kill a passenger, you’re in big trouble. And so everyone was classified as a ‘mission specialist.’ There were no passengers—the word ‘passenger’ was never used.” No one bought tickets; they contributed an amount of money set by Rush to one of OceanGate’s entities, to fund their own missions.

“It is truly hard to imagine the discernment it took for Stockton to string together each of the links in the chain,” Patrick noted. “ ‘How do I avoid liability in Washington State? How do I avoid liability with an offshore corporate structure? How do I keep the U.S. Coast Guard from breathing down my neck?’ ”

Here’s another bit.

“If you’re not breaking things, you’re not innovating,” Rush said, at the GeekWire Summit last fall. “If you’re operating within a known environment, as most submersible manufacturers do—they don’t break things. To me, the more stuff you’ve broken, the more innovative you’ve been.”

The Titan’s viewport was made of acrylic and seven inches thick. “That’s another thing where I broke the rules,” Rush said to Pogue, the CBS News journalist. He went on to refer to a “very well-known” acrylic expert, Jerry D. Stachiw, who wrote an eleven-hundred-page manual called “Handbook of Acrylics for Submersibles, Hyperbaric Chambers, and Aquaria.” “It has safety factors that—they were so high, he didn’t call ’em safety factors. He called ’em conversion factors,” Rush said. “According to the rules,” he added, his viewport was “not allowed.”

It seemed as if Rush believed that acrylic’s transparent quality would give him ample warning before failure. “You can see every surface,” he said. “And if you’ve overstressed it, or you’ve even come close, it starts to get this crazing effect.”

“And if that happened underwater . . .”

“You just stop and go to the surface.”

“You would have time to get back up?” Pogue asked.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s way more warning than you need.”

Ben Taub then interviews an expert on acrylic hull technology who said Stockton Rush had no idea what he was talking about.  And from what I understand, the submersible’s ballast had been dropped and the vessel was beginning to ascend when communication was lost. The  “mission specialists” knew something was wrong but didn’t have time to get out of trouble before implosion.

I started to title this post “Morons with Money.” But I changed my mind. I don’t know that Stockton Rush was a moron, but he definitely was a fool. One suspects he had always been cushioned with enough privilege and money that he never had to fully experiences the consequences of failure. The path to wisdom is paved with doubt.

And this takes us to Elon Musk. I take it this weekend he made changes to Twitter that just about made it unusuable for some people. See Elon Musk Finally Broke Twitter by Alex Shepherd at The New Republic. And I wouldn’t get into one of Musk’s spacecrafts if I were given a free ticket. One hopes that Musk has stayed out of managing SpaceX while he’s been busy destroying Twitter. See also 17 fatalities, 736 crashes: The shocking toll of Tesla’s Autopilot at WaPo. “… some of Musk’s decisions — such as widely expanding the availability of the features and stripping the vehicles of radar sensors — appear to have contributed to the reported uptick in incidents, according to experts who spoke with The Post.”

The recent court decision on affirmative action gives us concern for those who have too many barriers to face. But maybe we should be concerned for those who don’t have enough barriers. If there really were such a thing as an even playing field, would I be writing about Elon Musk or Stockton Rush right now?

Stockton Rush was named for two of his ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence: Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush. His maternal grandfather was an oil-and-shipping tycoon. As a teen-ager, Rush became an accomplished commercial jet pilot, and he studied aerospace engineering at Princeton, where he graduated in 1984.

No, probably not.

In other news. We’ve had a nice rash of mass shootings over the 4th of July weekend. Ain’t freedom grant?