Steve Fossett's unfinished legacy: Deepest ocean exploration

The adventurer was planning to be the first to go solo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Now, the company that built the craft he would have used it hoping to commercialize the technology.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

Correction: This story reported that Fossett would have been the first person to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. In fact, a team of two men did the dive in 1960, aboard a bathyscaphe--a "deep boat"--called the Trieste. Had Fossett made the trip, he would have been the first to do it solo.

Hawkes Ocean Technologies, a Richmond, Calif., company, was close to finishing a deep-ocean submersible for entrepreneur Steve Fossett when he disappeared a year ago. It's called the Deep Flight Challenger. Hawkes Ocean Technologies

Steve Fossett was known for many things, but perhaps the millionaire entrepreneur was best known for the many world records he set in a variety of different adventure sports.

And were it not for what seems certain to be his untimely and tragic death in a small airplane crash high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Fossett was poised to set a new record, one that could have far surpassed his many others in scope and shock value.

The record? To become the first human being to dive solo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet below the ocean surface near Guam.

This was no scuba dive, of course. Rather, Fossett had hired a Richmond, Calif., company called Hawkes Ocean Technologies, which specializes in building submersible vessels, to build him the craft that he could take down to the deepest known spot on Earth.

This is a CAD drawing of the Deep Flight Challenger with its outer skin on. Hawkes Ocean Technologies

That submersible is called the Deep Flight Challenger, and the company was just four weeks from putting it through its first real tests when Fossett disappeared in September of 2007. But already, it had gone through a series of tests at U.S. Department of Defense facilities and was deemed strong enough to withstand water pressure of up to 20,000 pounds per square inch, more even than the 16,000 PSI pressure known to be found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

The project was first reported by KGO-TV.

"It's been well known that for the last ten years, we've been working on revolutionary designs for underwater flying craft," said Graham Hawkes, the firm's chief engineer, "and we wanted to solve the problems of getting ultra deep. So I think it was fairly natural that he'd come to us."

Hawkes explained that because of the tragedy of Fossett's death, the Deep Flight Challenger is now sitting behind locked doors in a warehouse near Hawkes Ocean Technologies offices. It is owned by Fossett's estate, and it is not known what will happen to it given that the adventurer is no longer around to make the dive himself.

But--with apologies to Native Americans--to hear Hawkes talk about deep diving like this is tantamount to what it must have been like to talk to someone explaining that the American West was unexplored territory and that he (or she) had the technology to take people there to open up a giant new frontier.

This is a CAD drawing of the Deep Flight Challenger without its outer skin. Hawkes Ocean Technologies

Today, Hawkes said, there are just five deep ocean submersible craft in the world, all of which are owned by national governments. The United States has one, Russia has two--including one used by film director James Cameron to shoot some of the underwater sequences in Titanic--and both France and Japan have one.

Each of those vessels, however, are vastly expensive operations that require dedicated "motherships" to launch a mission, and which, Hawkes said, have extremely limited exploration range once they reach their desired depths.

By comparison, he said that his company's expertise has been the development of submersibles that are just one-eighth the weight of the nationally-owned crafts. And that's the major benefit of the technology. The submersibles can be launched from a wide variety of small rented ships; and once at depth, they can explore as much as 20 kilometers of territory.

And because the company's submersibles are so much lighter and don't require dedicated ships, they can cost approximately a tenth as much as the existing technology, said Karen Hawkes, the company's manager for marketing and communications.

Further, Graham Hawkes said, while the government's submersibles require as much as 20 tons of fuel oil per day, his company's craft can operate on just a few gallons of fuel per hour.

While the Fossett project may be on hold indefinitely, Hawkes Ocean Technologies is hoping to become the world leader in (relatively) affordable submersibles for private and public customers.

Hawkes said recent changes in how countries determine the outer edges of their sovereign territory have resulted in the United States and many other nations claiming twice as much coastal territory as they had before. In fact, he said, the U.S. and other countries are now claiming exclusive economic zones that extend to 200 miles beyond their shores.

"Few people noticed in the United States," Hawkes said, but many others outside the country did. Now, "the U.S., along with every other ocean state, has doubled their sovereign territory, and that territory has not been explored."

Here, the Deep Flight Challenger team poses for a picture with the craft. Due to the tragedy involving Fossett's plane crash, it is not known what will happen to this submersible, but the company is hoping to develop similar craft for private investors looking to explore deep ocean territory all around the world. Hawkes Ocean Technologies

And alluding to the nineteenth century opening up of the American West, he added that, "You think of the Lewis and Clark expeditions going West to find out what was there, and we're back in that" kind of exploration.

Of course, the United States is not alone in its interest in discovering what resources exists in these newly-claimed economic zones. Other countries, like India, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have all been building up new fleets of oceanographic exploration ships, Hawkes said.

"These kinds of craft, we see as being necessary to be the cutting edge of that exploratory effort," Hawkes said, "so we see markets in 26 countries that are already gearing up for ocean exploration. It's not the kind of marine science where you're looking at protecting marine species, but you're looking at...expanding your national territory."

Among the resources that various national and private interests think they could find in these deep ocean places are new kinds of minerals as well as food sources.

Not being able to complete the Fossett mission, of course, has been a blow to Hawkes and his company's plans, and while it must certainly be frustrating to see the Deep Flight Challenger sitting prone behind locked doors, Hawkes said it isn't in any way up to him to determine what happens to the vessel now.

But given that the company was so close to completing the project when Fossett went missing, it is easy for Hawkes to envision having finished.

"I would obviously have liked for Steve not to have crashed into that mountainside," he said, "and gone off and finished that expedition. It would have been a game changer."

That's because, he continued, his company's technology would be the world's first to easily and cost-effectively get man into the deep ocean.

"That's what I would have wanted to happen," he said. "How we get there from here, that chapter is about to be written."

For the last few years, most of the attention on new territory to explore has been up in the sky. Hawkes thinks that the private interests that have been pouring money into such efforts have it wrong.

"We're telling the five people in the United States building rockets and rocket companies that (space is) wonderful," Hawkes said, "but that they're 180 degrees off course, and they need to turn that thing around."