Richard Branson has been forced to reconsider his plans to explore the deepest parts of the world’s seas. The project, known as Virgin Oceanic, was first announced in 2011. This coincided with Branson’s acquisition of an 18-foot long submarine known as the DeepFlight Challenger. Three years after proclaiming this mission “the last great challenge for humans,” Branson is coming to the realization that he will not be exploring the ocean floor anytime soon.
The DeepFlight Challenger was the brainchild of adventurer Steve Fossett, who is famous for being the first person to circumnavigate the Earth in a hot-air balloon. Fossett’s original plan when he commissioned the construction of the submarine in 2005 was to take it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and then donate it to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Unfortunately, Fossett died in a plane crash in 2007 and was never able to complete this record-breaking dive. Four years later, Branson took Fossett’s idea and began to repurpose it to fit his own entrepreneurial vision.
Branson imagined the submarine as a potential vehicle for the tourism industry. Figuring he could eventually charge up to $500,000 per ticket for a ride to the ocean floor, he announced his intentions to explore the deepest points of the five oceans over a two-year period. The deepest and most dangerous of all would be first: the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, which is 35,840 feet below sea level.
As it turns out, the submarine might not be able to withstand the pressure at such a depth. During some initial testing which simulated the intense pressure found at more than 35,000 feet below sea level, the glass cockpit showed signs of cracking.
DeepFlight, the company that designed the submarine, has backed out of the Virgin Oceanic project completely. Its original intentions were to design a vessel that could safely take Fossett to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and back to the surface. It was commissioned for one trip only. The company knew that the strength of the submarine and its ability to withstand the pressure would decrease after each dive and so it was unwilling to be held accountable for what might happen to the submarine on its third or fourth dive. Without the support of DeepFlight’s engineers and consultants, Branson has had to seriously reconsider his deep-sea exploration plans.
This disappointment comes at a bad time for Branson, who is still reeling from the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The six-passenger spaceship reached a height of around 50,000 feet during its test flight over the Mojave desert and then exploded in mid-air, killing one of the pilots. This is an enormous setback in his plans to pioneer commercial flights into space. Over seven-hundred people have already paid the $250,000 for a ticket but at least twenty-four of them have asked Branson for a refund.
With companies like Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic, Branson is attempting to achieve the unthinkable by bringing humans where we have never been able to go before. Outer space and the deep oceans are truly the final frontiers and until now they have been inaccessible to all but a select few. The failures behind the SpaceShipTwo and the DeepFlight Challenger have reminded us how truly dangerous these frontiers are, and they have forced Branson to reconsider his plans to explore deep-sea environments.
By Dac Collins