© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What can be done to prevent a submersible tragedy from happening again?


What can be learned from the implosion of Titan? Stephen Flynn is the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University and a Coast Guard veteran with two tours as a commanding officer at sea.

Stephen, the investigation - let's start with that. International water - so who would lead this investigation if it happens?

STEPHEN FLYNN: Well, it'll likely be the Coast Guard will play a role. It will certainly be a multinational likely effort here should everybody decide to pull together to really find out some answers about just what happened here. But it raises sort of the bigger issue that you just keyed up, which is about how to regulate or should they agree that the submersibles should be regulated. You know, there's a great irony here, of course, that this tragedy happened right at the wreck of the Titanic because, of course, Titanic, 111 years ago when it left, when it sank, was the cutting-edge innovation of its time. And, in fact, the regulations that ultimately we use at sea, the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, came about directly because of the Titanic sinking.

MARTÍNEZ: What would you say is the No. 1 question that needs to be answered right now?

FLYNN: Well, really this issue of who's certified, who is looking over the shoulder of the of the developer? - especially because this was being used for a commercial purpose. You know, it's always the challenge, right? Innovation can often keep ahead of our ability to process what the risk is. And going to sea is inherently risky thing. The one thing I learned from my time doing search and rescue many years ago in the Coast Guard is that the sea's inherently a dangerous and incredibly deadly place - and sometimes a deadly place. And it's always almost an act of hubris to take on the sea. But how we've been able to manage it over the years is always kind of assess the risk and figure out ways in which we can put some boundaries around it. And that's going to clearly have to happen here when we look at the submersibles and the use of these for these deep-sea, essentially high-end tourism expeditions.

MARTÍNEZ: But doesn't boundaries on innovation for something like this - doesn't that limit the growth and the speed of the growth of having things like this?

FLYNN: It does, right? We're wrestling with this with artificial intelligence. We're wrestling with this in space. And it often takes, unfortunately, a tragedy to really get us to focus on this. But we do have mechanisms for managing this kind of thing. Other deep-sea submersibles have gone through a formal certification process to really make sure they get the kind of stress testing, very technical kinds of things. You know, there's question marks because this had been reused. Every time you put something under extreme stress, you know, it gets a little bit of fatigue. And then you release that stress. You put it under - you know, it's like pulling an elastic. Eventually, you'll tear it apart.

And so those - there is a need to always sort of really think carefully. And the challenging part here is that when the decision about making and taking on the risk - it's really a commercial, like, decision or at least that the actor is - you know, is about trying to do something that's on the commercial edge of things, you really need that oversight of a third party or somebody who's independent to say, hey, have you made the right calls?

MARTÍNEZ: Now, there's still going to be a lot of information that we need to get to figure out exactly what happened and where we go from here. But what would you say - if there is a lesson right now, Stephen, what would be the biggest lesson learned right now so far?

FLYNN: Yeah. I think the biggest lesson, really, is that we really have to think through, when we're talking about doing something at the sea and beneath the sea here, about how we manage the risks that are involved. And so innovators - we want it. We need it. We have to push the frontier. But we also have a responsibility to - as an international community - to make sure things are as safe as they can be. And this is going to need a rush of, I think, effort to really look at, investigate...


FLYNN: ...The incident and figure out what we can do to make it safer.

MARTÍNEZ: Stephen Flynn is the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, a former officer with the Coast Guard. Stephen, thanks.

FLYNN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.