by MELISSA LOCKER at fastcompany.com
04-14-17 – Stockton Rush is one of the few humans who owns a submarine, but initially what he really wanted was a spaceship. “I wanted to be the first person on Mars,” says Rush, and while that’s a common flight of fancy, Rush was serious. At 19, he became the youngest jet transport-rated pilot in the world and then went on to earn a degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton. He worked on F-15s and anti-satellite missile programs, with the aim of eventually taking part in the space program. It wasn’t until 10 years ago, at the age of 44, that he realized his dream of being an astronaut on a trip to Mars was just not going to happen, because as he sees it, there’s no economic reason to venture to the Red Planet. “If someone would tell me what the commercial or military reason to go to Mars is, I would believe it’s going to happen,” says Rush. “It’s just a dream.”
Rush wasn’t crushed or embittered by the realization that he wouldn’t go to Mars, though. Instead, he shifted focus from the stars to the seas. “I realized that what I really wanted to do was explore. I wanted to be Captain Kirk and in our lifetime, the final frontier is the ocean,” he says.
Rush likes to dig in deep to his passions. He built a Glasair III experimental aircraft, which he still owns and flies today, and casually mentioned in conversation that he built his own sub, too. As he started to explore the idea of launching his own submarine company, he tried to buy daredevil businessman Steve Fossett’s submersible, after the adventurer died in a 2007 plane crash. When that didn’t work out, he struck out on his own. Starting a submarine company sounds a lot like falling in love—it happens slowly and then all at once. “As I started building the sub bit by bit, I kept waiting for someone to tell me to stop, but no one did and then I was neck deep in it,” says Rush.
Since 2010, his Everett, Washington-based company, OceanGate, has been ushering marine researchers, nautical archaeologists, and well-financed adventure travelers to the ocean depths. The privately funded company is currently targeted at the adventure travel market, which Rush estimates is $275 billion a year. “There’s a huge demand for unique travel experiences,” he says. Undersea tourism—deep undersea tourism—may be one of the most adventurous travel experiences there is, and he’s betting that some tourists are willing to shell out for it.
With a new vessel—designed to go deeper than any private submarine on Earth—Rush wants to push the limits even further, to a place few living civilians have ever been. His plan is to bring bold adventurers (Rush doesn’t like the word “tourists”) to explore the wreck of the Titanic, 12,500 feet—nearly 2.5 miles—below the surface of the Atlantic.
What qualifies a person to join the crew? Their willingness to pay the hefty $105,129 price tag (the inflation-adjusted cost of first-class passage on the Titanic in 1912, $4,350), their physical ability to get in and out of the sub, sit inside an enclosed space and not panic, and their promise to avoid perfumes and certain foods during the journey. “Smells can be significant,” says Rush, discreetly.
OceanGate is still sorting the logistics of getting the adventurers to and from the boat, which will be anchored near the wreck site. Currently the plan is to put travelers on helicopters in Newfoundland and fly them to a landing deck aboard the dive support ship. Once on board, they will live and work with the crew, taking dives to the legendary shipwreck. As the weather allows during their eight-day stay, five at a time will make several 90-minute descents into the briny deep to attempt to make a 3D model of the Titanic, with help from the nonprofit Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory (AIVL) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
When they arrive at the watery grave, they’ll have joined a very select group of explorers. “Fewer than 200 people have ever visited the wreck,” says Rush. The crews will each spend a total of three hours exploring the rusting wreck, but will not touch it, out of respect for the dead (and international law).
The people who sign up to explore the underwater world are certainly in for an adventure, but for Rush, the high-end tours are a gateway to a more profitable business. “The long-term value is in the commercial side,” says Rush. “Adventure tourism is a way to monetize the process of proving the technology.” He compares this to how Virgin Galactic earned credibility with its tourism push and has now added satellite launches to their business.
Rush, it turns out, has a lot more in common with Richard Branson than Steve Zissou. While he certainly loves the mystery and allure of the sea, he is also a businessman—he earned a business degree from Berkeley and helmed a few IP ventures—who can’t help but see the ocean as a vast mass of resources filled with oil and gas reserves, diamond mining, and rare earth minerals to be harvested and profited from.