March 3, 2021

Ambitions as Deep as Their Pockets

“When I was a kid, I loved not only amazing ocean exploration but space, too,” James Cameron, the director of “Avatar,” “Titanic” and “The Abyss,” said in an interview. “I can think of no greater fantasy than to be an explorer and see what no human eye has seen before.”

The would-be explorers can afford to live their dreams because of their extraordinarily deep pockets. Significantly, their ambitions far exceed those of the world’s seafaring nations, which have no plans to send people so deep.

The billionaires and millionaires include Mr. Cameron, the airline mogul Richard Branson and the Internet guru Eric E. Schmidt. Each is building, planning to build or financing the construction of minisubmarines meant to transport them, their friends and scientists into the depths. Entrepreneurs talk of taking tourists down as well.

The vehicles, meant to hold one to three people, are estimated to cost anywhere from $7 million to $40 million.

The first dive is scheduled for later this year. Since secrecy and technical uncertainty surround many of the ventures, oceanographers say the current schedules may well change.

The rush is happening now in part because of advances in materials, batteries and electronics, which are lowering the cost and raising the capabilities of submersibles. Still, the challenges are formidable.

Hardest to build are the crew compartments, whose walls must be very thick, strong and precisely manufactured to withstand tons of crushing pressure. Designers are using not only traditional steel but such unexpected materials as spheres of pressure-resistant glass.

Humans have laid eyes on the Challenger Deep just once, half a century ago, in a United States Navy vessel. A window cracked on the way down. The landing on the bottom stirred up so much ooze that the two divers could see little and took no pictures. They stayed just 20 minutes.

Forays to lesser depths have multiplied over the years. Since the discovery of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1985, hundreds of explorers, tourists and moviemakers (including Mr. Cameron) have visited the world’s most famous shipwreck. It lies more than two miles down.

The Challenger Deep and similar recesses are part of a vast system of seabed trenches that crisscross the globe. The deepest are found in the western Pacific.

Over the decades, biologists have glimpsed their inhabitants by lowering dredges on long lines. Up have come thousands of bizarre-looking worms, crustaceans and sea cucumbers. More recently, undersea robots have filmed swarms of eels and ghostly fish, their tails long and sinuous.

In early April, Mr. Branson held a news conference in Newport Beach, Calif., to unveil his submersible. “The last great challenge for humans,” declared Mr. Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic, “is to explore the depths of our planet’s oceans.”

His solo craft, nearly 18 feet long, looked like a white-and-blue airplane with stubby wings and a cockpit. The curve of the wings is meant to drive the vehicle downward as it speeds through the water, rather than upward, as with an airplane.

Graham Hawkes, the craft’s designer and a veteran maker of undersea vehicles, said in an interview that more conservative designs were possible but that his goal was “to advance the state of the art.”

The winged craft and its mother ship cost an estimated $17 million. The submersible is scheduled to plunge deep later this year, its pilot a colleague of Mr. Branson. (The venture is profiled at virginoceanic.com.)

A few weeks later, in late April, another team went public. It unveiled plans, rather than a nearly complete vehicle. The company, Triton Submarines, based in Vero Beach, Fla., makes tiny submersibles with acrylic personnel spheres that carry two people down a half mile or more. The clear spheres provide much better viewing than the tiny portholes of traditional submersibles.

The company announced that it was ready to build a submersible to carry three people into the Challenger Deep. The vehicle’s personnel sphere — seven and a half feet in diameter — would be made entirely of glass and open like a clamshell to admit passengers.

Glass might seem fragile. But as pressures rise, said L. Bruce Jones, the company’s chief executive, “it gets stronger.”

He said two people — a billionaire and a near billionaire — were talking separately about buying one or two of the craft, each costing $15 million.

A company brochure says investors can expect to charge $250,000 a seat for tours of the Challenger Deep.

Mr. Jones said the craft would drop fast, covering the seven miles in about two hours. That would leave hours of bottom time for exploration before the return trip to the surface.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d3b86e99ad8ec1d5101bb4c2513a0785

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