50 years ago this month, 129 sailors perished when the U.S. submarine Thresher had a cataclysmic failure during deep-dive exercises off the coast of Cape Cod.
Only five minutes before, Thresher had reported "minor problems" , however the nearby U.S. Navy rescue ship Skylark then heard garbled messages, a period of silence and finally, the sounds of the sub breaking apart.
Fragments of the vessel were later discovered in 8,400 feet of water. But it was the search for those remnants that opened fresh wounds from the Sputnik embarrassment of just six years before. As the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in the race into space, the U.S. Trieste, an underwater vehicle with technology from 1953, performed woefully in its search for the Thresher.
A military review concluded the likely cause of the Thresher disaster was a faulty piping joint in the engine room. But the ensuing search for clues, and the humiliating performance of the Trieste lead to the new Deep Submergence Systems Project. And that project ultimately lead to development of remote-controlled deep sea vehicles like Alvin, responsible for solving one of the greatest maritime mysteries-- the exact location of the sunken R.M.S. Titanic .
It is ironic that two disasters at sea; one in 1912 and the other in 1963 could be linked by a technological spectrum. The Titanic was a technological marvel that nature defeated on the maiden voyage.
The Thresher accident revealed gaps in America's deep sea exploratory technology, but was a catalyst for change. The eventual outcome ultimately discovered one of the greatest mysteries of modern times -the resting place of the R.M.S. Titanic.