Racing to the Bottom: Exploring the Deepest Point on Earth

Branson's team, led by legendary submersible designer Graham Hawkes and chief pilot Chris Welsh, has been planning to take the Virgin Oceanic out for water tests as early as this summer, but, due to setbacks, no date has been confirmed. In early rounds of laboratory testing, the borosilicate viewing bubble through which the Oceanic's crew would peer out at the ocean floor cracked under just 2,200 pounds per square inch of pressure, about one-eighth of the 16,000 psi expected at Challenger Deep.

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The 8,000-pound, 18-foot-long submersible that Hawkes has designed "represents a transformational technological advance in submarine economics and performance," according to Virgin Oceanic's official website. "The submarine provides the currently unequalled capability to take humans to any depth in the oceans and to truly explore." Taking some of the most elegant creatures of the sea as inspiration -- whales, dolphins and rays -- the Virgin Oceanic uses two sets of wings to fly through the water.

The Virgin Oceanic will be carried out to sea and launched by an enormous 125-foot racing catamaran that was once owned by adventurer, aviator and sailor Steve Fossett. Welsh, the pilot for the submersible who made his money in real estate and then decided to take to the seas, purchased the catamaran after Fossett disappeared in a single-engine airplane over the Nevada desert in 2007. He traveled to Fossett's estate to close the deal on the Cheyenne and was sold on the Challenger, the original name for what would become the Virgin Oceanic, as well.

JAMES CAMERON'S DEEP CHALLENGE TEAM

The Avatar and Terminator director is an explorer first and a filmmaker second. The box office-breaking Titanic wasn't on Cameron's radar as a Hollywood project because he knew it could earn huge dividends, rather, he has long been obsessed with the famous sinking of the ship. He has made several trips to the wreckage, shooting footage using 3-D cameras he designed himself to capture the 100-year-old ship as it has never been seen before. He plans on using some similar technology at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Admittedly, Cameron doesn't care if he's the first (well, the first of this group) to reach the bottom ... he just wants to be the best. Cameron's team is working on building what appears to be the most high-tech (and least reliant on a tourism-based model to fund future exploration) submersible. The as-yet-unnamed project will include a giant lighting array, several 3-D high-definition cameras, an arm that can grab samples from the ocean floor and a small ROV similar to that used to swim in and around the Titanic wreckage, according to an email that Cameron sent to Outside's Anna McCarthy.

Unlike Branson's Virgin Oceanic, Cameron's Challenger Deep project has passed pressure tests; at a Penn State University lab, the team turned the dials to 16,000 psi and waited. Nothing. But at what cost? Nobody knows how much time or money Cameron has put into this submersible, about which he has been pretty tight-lipped since kicking off the design stage with a couple of sketches in 2003. Now, more two dozen people are working around the clock to prepare the sub for sea trials next April.

BRUCE JONES' TRITON SUBMARINES

Bruce Jones is the odd man out in this triumvirate. And that's because you have no idea who Bruce Jones is -- and you're not alone. Building a vessel that can safely sink to the bottom of the ocean is no easy feat; it's one that requires big backers with deep pockets, something that Jones doesn't have. While the 55-year-old entrepreneur has drawn up plans and marketing materials -- they call this project the "race to inner space!" -- he has not yet secured the funds to construct a prototype. He's currently shopping around the idea. "We're talking to a number of first clients because, quite frankly, we don't have the money to build one of these on spec," Jones told Outside.

Jones' Florida-based company is hoping to build a number of Triton 36,000s -- named for its maximum depth, obviously -- and sell them for about $15 million each to individuals who can shuttle people down to the bottom of the ocean for even more than Branson plans to charge for a space ride: $250,000 each.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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