By Robert Mendick and Dominic Nicholls
Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger submarine, whose mission was described by Sir Richard Branson as “the last great challenge for humans”, has been mothballed.
Sir Richard Branson has quietly shelved his latest adventure: an ambitious plan to pilot a submarine to the deepest points of the world’s five oceans. The entrepreneur had a grand scheme to explore both space and sea. But his plan for the first rocket ship charging passengers for trips to the edge of space is in jeopardy after the craft crashed during a test flight, killing a pilot. Now Sir Richard’s dream of exploring the lowest points on Earth is also on hold.
Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger submarine was unveiled in a blaze of publicity in April 2011, with Sir Richard describing its mission as “the last great challenge for humans”. He had hoped the 18ft-long submarine, designed to “fly” along the ocean floor, would make its maiden voyage to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench – at a depth of 36,000ft, the lowest known point on Earth – by the end of 2011, or failing that, by 2012.It would then move on to the Puerto Rico trench at 28,000ft in the Atlantic, followed by dives in the Arctic, Indian and Southern oceans. The plan was for alternating pilots in the single-seater craft, with Chris Welsh, a sailor and explorer, taking the first dive and Sir Richard the second.
Three years on, the DeepFlight Challenger has been mothballed, never having reached the bottom of any of the oceans. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, apparently taken down earlier this year.
Virgin Oceanic had planned to charge a future generation of “aquanauts” up to $500,000 (£318,000), according to one source, to pilot submarines to the ocean floor. But the company that built DeepFlight Challenger has told The Telegraph it refused to back the project, insisting the submarine was suitable for only one dive and could not be reused because of the pressure on its structure at such depths. In a little-noticed statement three months ago on the Virgin group website, Sir Richard alluded to the project being scrapped but stopped short of admitting defeat. He said: “Starting new ventures takes a ‘screw it, let’s do it’ attitude and finding the right partners to help us achieve the unthinkable… However, business is also about knowing when to change tack. “We are still highly passionate about exploring the bottom of the ocean. However, we are now widening the focus of the project and looking for new technology to help us explore the ocean and democratise access at reduced cost and increased safety.”
Last week, Virgin confirmed the original plan for five ocean dives using DeepFlight Challenger had been scrapped. A spokesman said there were concerns about making the dives safely, adding: “We were not sure it [DeepFlight Challenger] would make it down. That project has been put on ice while we look at other technology that works.” The spokesman said Sir Richard still had ambitions to explore the ocean trenches, but there was no rush. “The name [Virgin Oceanic] remains our name, so no doubt we will revive it.”
DeepFlight Challenger was the invention of Steve Fossett, the multi-millionaire adventurer, who commissioned its construction in 2005. He planned to pilot the submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a one-off trip, then donate the craft to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
But in tests simulating the pressure at 38,000ft below the sea, the vessel’s domed glass cockpit showed signs of cracking, meaning that a replacement would need to be made from stronger material. That appears to be as far as the DeepFlight Challenger ever got. When Fossett, a close friend of Sir Richard, died in a plane crash in 2007, the ownership of the submarine passed to his estate. Four years later, Mr Welsh, who is also a Californian property magnate, bought the craft and a huge catamaran from which to launch it from Fossett’s estate for less than $1 million. He approached Sir Richard for further investment and the pair set up Virgin Oceanic in 2011. At the company’s launch in California, Sir Richard admitted the dives might be dangerous but appeared aware of future commercial possibilities, saying: “We believe there are thousands of people who’d like to explore the oceans and become aquanauts.”
But DeepFlight, the company that designed and built the submarine, said it expressed concerns about its suitability for repeated dives. Adam Wright, the firm’s president, said last week: “The Challenger was built for a very specialised contract with Steve Fossett. It was designed for one dive down to the Mariana Trench. The idea was to set the record for the deepest dive and then give it to the Smithsonian to put on display.
“Once Virgin took over the project, the importance of the one-off record dive shifted and they wanted to repurpose the craft. They wanted to do five dives. The problem is the strength of the vessel does decrease after each dive. It is strongest on the first dive.”
Mr Wright said DeepFlight had talks with Virgin about providing a consulting and engineering service, but pulled out. “As soon as we heard about the five dives and that they wanted to repurpose it [the submarine] and sell tickets, we didn’t want to be associated with that.”They were trying to sell tickets; they wanted to charge half a million dollars. We were extremely concerned about it… We didn’t want the liability of being the manufacturer of that vessel. “Had the focus of the project been maintained to the initial purpose, it would have been totally different. The problem was not the technology or the lack of knowhow.” DeepFlight was beaten to the record dive by another submarine, piloted by James Cameron, the Oscar-winning film director, who took his submersible on a solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012.
This article was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 14th December 2014. See this link.