Planetary scientist Alan Stern said he wasn’t prepared for the “intersections” his oceanic expedition to the Titanic made with his career, which includes his time leading NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
Stern, who spoke to HuffPost last week, revealed the parallels he discovered between the oceanic journey he made through OceanGate Expeditions ― a company that offers trips to the Titanic’s resting place in the Atlantic Ocean ― and exploration of space.
The scientist joined OceanGate Expeditions, which is offering $250,000 expeditions for people to see the famed ship roughly 12,500 feet below the ocean surface, on its “Titan” submersible as a mission specialist and scientific expert (such experts don’t pay fares to join the expeditions).
A number of Stern’s contributions to the mission ― in addition to offering his planetary knowledge ― included collecting water column samples, aiding with ocean bottom sampling and providing assistance with communication to a team on the surface during the descent.
“It has some parallels both to current and to far-future space exploration, like the exploration of ocean worlds in the outer solar system,” Stern told HuffPost. “And it didn’t all gel for me until I really made the journey and was on our way steaming back north to Canada to come back to dock.”
Noting that fewer people have been to the Titanic’s resting place than to space, Stern reflected in journal entries he wrote in July about the ship’s tragic end and how stories about its remains are “lost in time.”
Stern, who is set to join Virgin Galactic’s suborbital research trip next year, told HuffPost that submersibles have many of the same systems as spacecraft ― including an environmental life-support system, a communication system and a power system ― but that there are “vast” technological differences, as well.
One example, he noted, was the inability to use radio aboard the submersible.
“So you communicate with an acoustic modem, something like out of the ’80s… and it’s really just text messaging back and forth, and there’s a long time delay. … And if I send a message to the surface, it takes 30 seconds to get up there.”
Stern recalled helping OceanGate’s chief submersible pilot Stockton Rush, the founder and CEO of the company, during the final descent and compared him to astronaut Neil Armstrong “doing the landing” as he ― in the “Buzz Aldrin” role ― called off readings from the range-finding sonar.
Rush founded OceanGate in 2009, and the company has since embarked on expeditions to San Francisco’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the wreck of the Andrea Doria and the Titanic, with the company kicking off its expeditions to the Titanic in 2021.
The expeditions to the Titanic ― a luxury liner that sank in 1912, causing the loss of more than 1,500 lives ― are part of a longitudinal study that has several goals, the company said, such as determining how long people will be able to recognize the Titanic, mapping the ocean floor around the ship, researching the ship as an artificial reef and providing maritime archaeologists with images and footage from dives.
He noted that Rush asked to tell him when they could see the bottom of the ocean during their descent this summer, however, there were challenges on their journey to the Titanic, such as a reliance on sonar and spotlights to find the wreckage.
“We know exactly where the Titanic is because of GPS and buoys. We know where it is precisely, and we know where the submersible is on the ship at the surface because of GPS,” Stern said. “But in between there are currents. And as you’re descending, you’re at the mercy of the currents.”
Stern added that currents can vary with your depth, so while best estimates are made on how far the submersible will drift in its descent, he said, you can typically end up hundreds of meters from where you intended to be.
Once his team reached the bottom of the ocean, they waited for clouds of sediment to settle, turned on sonar to spot the ship and drove to the Titanic. But they didn’t see it until they “were literally 20 meters from it,” he said.
“So that’s very interesting because in spaceflight, we’re able to navigate to these incredible precisions, even after traveling across the solar system to Pluto, for example,” Stern said.
“And it’s just different technologies, and in many ways harder, but also limited by budgets, you know. So I found it fascinating, and lots of parallels.”
In a press release, Stern said that private-sector entities like OceanGate Expeditions mark the early days of an “unparalleled era” of deep ocean exploration.
He told HuffPost that “very little” of the enormous area of the Earth’s oceans has been explored in the way that people have explored Earth’s land surfaces.
“When I was a kid, no one knew where the Titanic was. They know that was still in the future for Bob Ballard to find,” Stern said, referring to the 1985 discovery.
“And then when he went down there, the thought that people could go there relatively routinely wasn’t even a thing that you would think about. It was such a feat. And still today it’s very rare.
“Of course, spaceflight is exploding in terms of human access, and so is the oceangoing stuff. And I saw great parallels in that. And I think that there [are] going to be some very interesting parallels in terms of the economic development of the oceans for the good of the world.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included the wrong date for the sinking of the Titanic. It sank in 1912.