Boeing, UW and NASA deny design partnerships with OceanGate

Stockton Rush, OceanGate CEO, in front of Titan, on Monday, March 12, 2018 in Everett, Washington.
(Andy Bronson / The Herald)

WSU Everett and Everett Community College severed ties with company.

OceanGate claimed it drew on the expertise of some of the nation’s high-powered corporations, universities and federal agencies to design and build Titan, the five-person sub whose pilot and passengers perished this week en route to the wreck of the Titanic.

The deep sea exploration company has described The Boeing Co., the University of Washington, and NASA as “partners” who made significant contributions to the vessel’s design and construction.

“We partnered with aerospace experts at the University of Washington, NASA and Boeing on the design of our hull,” a promotional video on OceanGate’s YouTube channel advertises. The moderator’s statement is accompanied by a screen covered in the logos for Boeing, NASA and the UW.

This week, all three entities — Boeing, NASA and UW — denied participating in the sub’s design or construction.

Their denials have raised questions as to whether OceanGate overstated, misrepresented or exaggerated the role they played, if any, in developing the experimental vessel designed to take high-paying customers to the Titanic wreckage. On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard said the vessel suffered a catastrophic imposion.

Such claims might have led tourists to believe the sub was more thoroughly vetted than it actually was despite OceanGate’s description of the sub as an experimental craft.

OceanGate said it drew upon Boeing’s expertise to design the vessel’s hull, consulting with the airplane manufacturer in designing Titan’s unique carbon fiber and titanium hull. Other small submersibles are typically built from a heavier combination of steel and titanium, Oceangate said.

“This is the only submersible — crewed submersible — that’s made of carbon fiber and titanium,” OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush told The Associated Press in June 2021. Rush called it the “largest carbon fiber structure that we know of, with 5-inch-thick carbon fiber and 3.25-inch-thick titanium.” The chief executive was one of the five passengers who died after the Titan went missing Sunday.

In a statement Thursday to The Daily Herald, the aerospace giant denied a partnership with the company.

“Boeing was not a partner on the Titan and did not design or build it,” the company said.

Boeing may have consulted with OceanGate, but it’s not clear what that involved, according to a 2013 UW news release.

“The Boeing Company worked with OceanGate and the UW on initial design analysis of the 7-inch-thick pressure vessel,” the release read.

In a clarification added to the 2013 news release on Wednesday, the UW said, “the vessel that resulted from this partnership was a steel-hulled submersible that can travel to 500 meters ( 0.3 miles) depth, named the Cyclops 1.”

OceanGate refers to Titan as its “second Cyclops-class submersible.”

Denials of involvement in the sub’s design have also been issued by NASA and the University of Washington.

The space agency told an Alabama news outlet this week that it consulted with OceanGate but “did not conduct testing and manufacturing (of the submersible) via its workforce or facilities.

The University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory also issued a disclaimer this week.

A 2013 university news release announced a joint effort by OceanGate and the physics lab.

In a statement to The Herald on Thursday, the UW said,“The physics lab initially signed a $5 million research collaborative agreement with OceanGate, but only $650,000 worth of work was completed before the two organizations parted ways.”

“That collaboration resulted in a steel-hulled vessel, named the Cyclops 1, that can travel to 500 meters depth, which is far shallower than the depths that OceanGate’s Titan submersible traveled to. The Laboratory was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the Titan submersible used in the RMS Titanic expedition,” the UW said.

Between 2015 and 2021, OceanGate used the UW School of Oceanography’s testing tanks for nine tests “on a contract basis,” the UW said.

OceanGate was listed as the client, but no UW researchers or staff provided “any verification or validation of any OceanGate equipment as a result of those tests,” the UW said.

OceanGate also partnered with Washington State University Everett and Everett Community College in offering internships to students and graduates.

A 2018 WSU Everett news release offered an exuberant account of student involvement in designing the sub.

“When a five-person submersible descends to the floor of the North Atlantic this summer, part of a historic series of private excursions to map the famed RMS Titanic’s wreckage in 3-D imagery, it will be WSU Everett students that helped make it possible,” a 2018 news release from the college said.

The release says that the sub’s entire electrical system was designed by WSU Everett students.

“The whole electrical system – that was our design, we implemented it and it works,” Mark Walsh, a 2017 WSU Everett graduate in electrical engineering, said in the release. “We are on the precipice of making history and all of our systems are going down to the Titanic. It is an awesome feeling!”

In 2017, OceanGate hired Walsh to lead the company’s electrical engineering. According to his LinkedIn profile, he left the ocean adventure company in 2019.

On Thursday, WSU Everett offered this statement to The Daily Herald:

“WSU Everett does not have an alliance with OceanGate,” the statement reads. “We are aware that some of our graduates have worked at OceanGate. To our knowledge, one graduate currently works there. We are not privy to what OceanGate projects WSU Everett alumni have been involved in or what their roles may have been outside of publicly available information.”

OceanGate’s ties to WSU Everett and Everett Community College began after the company moved to Everett in 2015.

Founded in Seattle in 2009, OceanGate leased warehouse space at the Port of Everett in 2015. There the company planned to develop and build a “fleet of manned next-generation submersibles,” and conduct sea trials.

Everett Community College’s Ocean Research College Academy, located at the port, helped students obtain internships at OceanGate, said Ardi Kveven, the academy’s founder and executive director.

However, those internships were discontinued four years ago.

Kveven said there was often a disconnect between the exploration community, which embraced pushing the envelope, and the more methodical scientific community.

Puffery is allowed

Attorney Sherif Edmond El Dabe, a partner with Los Angeles-based El Dabe Ritter Trial Lawyers, said OceanGate CEO Rush specifically sought to hire younger people.

Based on Rush’s on-the-record comments,“He wanted a team partly based on who would do things in a new way due to their youth and optimism,” El Dabe told The Herald on Thursday.

“Was the team ignorant of certain safety concerns or design flaws that an older, experienced engineer would have headed off?” El Dabe asked.

That’s unknown.

The news comes as the company announced Thursday that all five passengers had perished in the Titan.

“We now believe that our CEO Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, have sadly been lost,” OceanGate said in a statement Thursday.

“These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans. Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time. We grieve the loss of life and joy they brought to everyone they knew,” the company said.

With their deaths, the families of the passengers may launch a legal challenge against OceanGate.

But obstacles loom.

“Everyone on board knew this wasn’t a vacation or a sightseeing trip, and the disclaimer appears to have made the risk of death very clear multiple times,” El Dabe said.

As a result, the likelihood of a successful lawsuit against OceanGate “is close to zero,” El Dabe said.

Still, what passengers didn’t know when they signed up for the trip might be relevant in a lawsuit.

The waiver could be challenged if it’s found that OceanGate was negligent in the way the submersible was designed or operated, “and that caused it to be lost,” El Dabe said.

On the other hand, exaggeration or overstatement may not count.

If OceanGate merely exaggerated or overstated its ties to NASA, Boeing and the UW — the determination could be much murkier.

“The law does allow for some amount of puffery or exaggeration in marketing materials,” El Dabe said.

If OceanGate worked with Boeing in some capacity, “but Boeing didn’t have an actual hand in the design and construction,” that type of statement would not invalidate the waiver, he said.

On the other hand, if the waiver, for example touted the sub as rated for 13,000 feet but it’s actually rated for 5,000 feet — that would be fraud, El Dabe said.

Statements by Rush and a 2018 lawsuit by a former employee claiming the OceanGate ignored safety issues are also likely to be taken into account, the attorney said.

Janice Podsada