|The Loss of the U.S.S. Thresher
John (Jack) Nosek
PHIL 251- Engineering Ethics
December 10, 2004
During the nuclear missile age of the Cold War, the missile firing submarine was the deadliest weapons system in existence. The missile firing submarine, operating at the deep depths of the ocean, seemed invulnerable to almost all methods of detection and destruction. Nuclear submarine technology advanced in the late 1950s, and it soon became apparent that the best way to destroy one of these remarkable weapons of war would be with another nuclear powered submarine. Hence, during the 1960s the leading maritime nations - United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union - began building fleets of these powerful, deadly, hunter-killer submarines. The United States Navy had its ultimate hunter-killer submarine, the Thresher. Over sixty years of submarine technology, the experience of two world wars, and the knowledge obtained by leading the world in nuclear development went into designing the Thresher.
The Navy’s top engineers and submariners planned the design of the Thresher to combine the most technological advancements within a single, high speed hull. Thresher would have the most advanced sonar in existence to detect enemy submarines; special silencing features that would make her very hard to find; advanced weapons that could strike out and destroy enemy submarines from miles away; high submerged speed that could quickly bring her within striking distance; and most important, the ability to operate at deeper depths than any other previous submarine. This advancement was the most important and played such an important role when designing the Thresher because the deeper a submarine could go, the harder it is to detect and destroy the submarine. Not only would it be harder to detect and destroy, there were indications that at such deep depths of underwater sound channels that would greatly increase the range of sonar in submarines. There are downsides to at deeper depths; the amount of pressure greatly increases as the submarine travels deeper. For the Thresher to withstand the intense pressure from the water, the Navy had two options: increase the thickness of the submarines hull or use stronger steel. The Navy decided to use stronger steel on the Thresher, because using thicker steel would be difficult to create reliable welds in the thicker metal. This stronger steel, HY-80 steel would be able to withstand the pressure of about 80,000 ponds per square inch before it would start pulling apart. With the stronger steel used in constructing the submarines hull, she would also be able to withstand greater shocks from enemy weapons at shallower waters.
The Thresher, designed to spend most of her time operating at the deep depths of the ocean, would be given an Albacore hull design which was a cigar-shaped hull, which is most efficient underwater. Internally the Thresher would be an unusual design. All preceding submarines had there sonar equipment fitted where space could be found, but the Thresher was constructed around her sonar equipment. The new sonar system would be in her bow, where traditional submarines hold their torpedo tubes. Placing the sonar system in the bow would have the greatest advantages because it would as far away as possible from all the noise interference from the submarines propeller and machinery. The Thresher’s new sonar system, AN/BQQ-2, was the most advanced submarine listening device yet, capable of detecting the sounds made by other submarines had greater distances than any previous submarine sonar.
The Thresher had four torpedo tubes, two on each side. They would fire Mk 45 ASTOR (Anti-Submarine Torpedo), which was a wire guided weapon that carried a nuclear warhead. Later the Thresher would be fitted with the SUBROC (Submarine Rocket), a weapon launched from the submarine that would streak up to the surface, leave the water in a ballistic trajectory, and then plunge back into the water several miles from the Thresher. Upon re-entering the water the SUBROC’s nuclear warhead would detonate. The Thresher would carry about 25 weapons: torpedoes, SUBROC’s, and tube-launched sea mines.
Driving the Thresher would be the Westinghouse S5W nuclear reactor, the same reactors that powered the Threshers predecessors of the Skipjack class and all of the US Polaris missile submarines. The reactor would produce steam that would turn a turbine to drive the submarines single propeller. The nuclear power would also provide many luxurious accommodations including fresh water, and air-conditioning. And when the submarine was in port, the reactor would provide electricity because the atomic plant would be shut down. Other power sources for the Thresher were the small diesel-electric power plant/generator, and also a large electric storage battery.
Construction of the Thresher was also different than all previous submarines. The Thresher was built at the government operated Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located on Kittery Island, Maine beginning on May 28th, 1958 by the Electric Boat Company, instead of being built at the commercial Electric Boat yard in Groton, Connecticut, where all previous lead ships of nuclear submarines for the United States were built. The Thresher would be one of many submarines being built at the Portsmouth Naval shipyard at that time. With emphasis being given to the Polaris missile submarine program, construction of the Thresher stretched on for almost two years, where as a prototype Polaris submarine built at the same time would take only 14 months.
The USS Thresher, a $45 million dollar submarine, commissioned on August 3rd, 1961 under the command of Commander Dean W. Axene, was shorter and fatter that her World War II ancestors because of her Albacore hull design. This design would give the submarine greater volume and hence more displacement. The Thresher had a displacement of just under 3700-tons on the surface, compared to just under 1600-tons for World War II submarines, and 4300-tons when submerged. Thresher had an over all length of 278’6”, which allowed its Beam to be 31’8”. With four torpedo tubes the Thresher was capable of reaching speeds above 20 knots and capable of reaching a maximum depth of 1300 feet, where the pressure is 40-tons per square inch, compared to World War II submarines which would only operate at depths up to 400 feet. The first of a new class submarine designed to be the quickest, fastest, and have the deepest diving depth of any other submarine to date. The USS Thresher was the most advanced submarine at sea, built specifically to hunt and destroy Soviet submarines. The United States Navy counted on the Thresher to remain one-step ahead of the Soviets.
During 1961 and 1962, Thresher conducted trials in the Caribbean and western Atlantic waters. These trials were conducted to provide a thorough evaluation of her new technological features and weapons furthering the Navy’s understanding of nuclear submarines. Thresher’s first assignment took her south to the Tongue of the Ocean; the tongue was the deep passage north of Andros Island in the Bahama Islands. There careful studies were made of the Thresher to determine how much noise her machinery generated and how much sound was produced by her streamlined hull passing through the water. The Thresher had proven to be even quieter than she was designed to be. From the Bahamas, the Thresher headed back north to the Navy’s weapons center at Newport, Rhode Island. There the Thresher underwent her torpedo tube acceptance trials. These trials mated the Thresher to various types of torpedoes in the Navy’s arsenal. From there the Thresher took part in multiple shock tests in Key West Florida. These shock tests served two purposes: to determine the amount of physical effects on the submarine and the effect the tests had on the submarines noise output. These shock tests proved to be very rigorous, causing many of the submarines instruments to become out of alignment. The Thresher was sent back to Portsmouth to have the instruments re-aligned, but even after re-alignment the instruments still had some problems.
Following these trials the submarine took part in a nuclear submarine exercise (NUSUBEX) 3-61 off the northeastern coast of the United States from September 18th to the 24th. After performing these trials the submarine remained at port through the year having its sonar system and Submarine Rocket (SUBROC) system evaluated. In March, of 1962, the submarine participated in another NUSUBEX 2-62, which was an exercise designed to improve the tactical capabilities of nuclear submarines, train in anti-submarine warfare, and perform testing on the submarines SUBROC’s.
Before returning to New England waters the submarines next stop was Cape Canaveral. While mooring, the submarine was accidentally struck by a tugboat, ripping a three-foot gash in the Thresher’s port side and damaging one of the submarines ballast tanks. Ballast tanks, located at the submarines bottom or sides between the pressure and outer hulls, are adjustable tanks that hold water. The amount of water in these tanks determines whether the submarine remains level, rises to the surface or submerges under water. When surfaced the main ballast tanks are full of air providing the buoyancy necessary to keep the submarine afloat. While submerging the vents on the tanks are opened releasing the trapped air, allowing sea water to enter. With water flooding the tanks the submarine becomes heavier than the water it displaces causing it to submerge. Once fully submerged, water from a special ballast tanks called a negative tank is blown back to sea using compressed air and the submarine can then float because it weighs the same as the water it displaces. To surface the vents are shut and compressed air is forced back into the tanks forcing sea water out through the flood ports causing the submarine to weigh less than the displaced water. From this positive buoyancy the submarine is forced to rise and eventually surface. Repairs were made on the damaged ballast tank at Groton, Connecticut by the Electric Boat Company. Once northward, in New England waters, the submarine remained in dockyard hands through early spring of 1963.
On April 10th, 1963 in company with Skylark (ASR-20), a 1735-ton class submarine that served as a communication link during dives and to render assistance if there were any difficulties, and under the new command of Lieutenant Commander John W. Harvey, the Thresher went out to sea for deep sea diving exercises. Skylark remained on the surface of the water. 129 men manned the Thresher: 9 officers, 85 crew men, 18 navy technicians and 17 civilian technicians, who were on board to observe the performance of the submarine during its testing. Thresher reached its assigned test depth and communicated with Skylark through the invisible sound impulses of her underwater telephone or UQC. Within fifteen minutes of testing Skylark received a garbled message from Thresher, “minor difficulties, attempting to blow ballast tank, will keep posted.” Listeners in Skylark suddenly heard a noise “like air rushing into an air tank” from the Thresher. Efforts to re-establish contact failed and a search group was formed in order to locate the downed submarine. Leading the search group were Trieste, a deep diving research bathyscaphe, and the USNS Mizar, an oceanographic research ship with deep submergence support capability. Photographs taken by the bathyscaphe, Trieste, proved that the submarine had broken up, taking all hands on board to their deaths.
A Court of Inquiry, after studying the pictures and other data, determined that the submarine sunk due to a piping failure, subsequent loss of power and the inability to blow the ballast tanks rapidly enough to avoid sinking. A Navy investigation concluded that while the Thresher was operating at test depth, a leak had developed at a silver-brazed joint in an engine room sea water system. Water from the leak short-circuited electrical equipment related to the main engine, causing a reactor shutdown and leaving the submarine without primary and secondary propulsion systems. The submarine was unable to blow its main ballast tanks, and because of the insufficient power from the emergency propulsion motor, the submarine was unable to surface. Once the submarine began to sink, it was only a matter of time before the submarine would slip below its maximum crush depth, about 1800 feet, and then inevitably crush like a tin can. Thresher was found 8400 feet below the surface on the ocean floor in six major sections: the sail, sonar dome, bow section, engineering spaces, operations spaces and the tail section.
The loss of the Thresher led to the development of the SUBSAFE program to insure safety on submarines by increasing the reserve buoyancy, thus making it easier for a submarine to rise to the surface despite damage or flooding. It also implemented that all sea-connected joints can no longer be brazed and must be welded. The program also had all emergency controls redesigned, making them clearly marked and easily accessible, and that at all times the operator is one second away from the emergency ballast switch. As a result of SUBSAFE, submarines were lengthened to accommodate an emergency blow system, capable of de-ballasting seven times faster than the Thresher, allowing recovery at any depth.
There are many stakeholders in this case as the results impacted many people and industries operating on the existence and functionality of the Thresher vessel. The primary stakeholders involved were The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Electric Boat Company Engineers, the US navy, and the crew of the USS Thresher. The secondary stakeholders include the American people and the Soviet Navy.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in partnership with the Electric Boat Company had the big job of constructing the Thresher with the new design specifications for the nuclear class attack submarine. The submarine was built under the ideal that it would go faster, deeper, and strike harder than any other submarine. The responsibility to create and maintain such a vessel was placed in the hands of the engineers at the naval shipyard, and an evaluation of the end result of their job steers the case review of the Thresher. The shipyard was responsible for asserting that the USS Thresher seaworthy at every point of its construction and through all possible system malfunctions during missions. An analysis of the engineer’s impulse decisions during constructions and questionable repairs on the vessel raises questions whether the engineers performed their duties correctly while working on the USS Thresher.
The Thresher was the pride of the US Navy. It was an important asset to the US Navy in the submarine warfare that took place during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The loss of the Thresher was good news to the Soviet Union and a step back to the drawing board for American engineers. The guard of the Eastern seaboard now sunk, created an opening for the Soviet Navy to attack the possible weakness of the US Army.
Furthermore, the stakeholders in this incidents include the rescue ship Bathyscaphe Trieste and other nuclear submarines. With the creation of SUBSAFE, the call was sent out for the reconstruction, testing and modification of existing submarines and rescue vehicles. The loss of the Thresher became a positive driving force for the US Navy to build a more complicated but safer submarine for its deep sea use.
On board with her usual compliment of 112 officers and crew were an assortment of 17 shipyard workers and engineers on board for the brief cruise to observe how well it performed. Makeshift accommodations were prepared for these guests on the ship during its test mission. The lives of all these people were lost at sea. Their deaths are directly connected and identified as people who entrusted their lives to the Thresher to operate in its design capacity effectively as a deep diving Submarine.
The loss of the USS Thresher provided the Soviets with an increase in psychological advantage over the US Navy on the seaboard as the US Navy continued to have problems with submarines in the ocean. The citizens of the United States were also affected because the loss of a submarine reduced their safety and protection from foreign invaders. The US “Hunter Fleet” was no longer something that could be trusted by the people and the reliability of the Navy submarines were put into question.
The USS Thresher had many technical problems, one of them being the fact that the construction of the Thresher was rushed in order to save time and have the submarine in the waters as soon as possible. The submarine was designed to meet two sets of standards. Because the submarines nuclear power plant was the focus of the engineers, the standards used for the nuclear power plant were more stringent than those for the rest of the submarine. As a result of the emphasis placed on the nuclear related aspects of the design, builders assigned less importance to the steam and saltwater systems, even though these systems were crucial to the operation and safety of the vessel. When the Thresher was under construction the procedure of silver-brazing became a problem. Brazing is a process that joins metal parts by heating them to a temperature sufficient to melt a filler material, which then flows into the space between the closely fitted parts by capillary action. Two standards for silver-brazing pipe joints were used during the Thresher’s construction and overhaul. Induction heating, which provides better joint integrity, was used for easily accessible joints. Where accessibility was restricted, hand-held torches were used. This process was used on many of the Thresher’s crucial, but less accessible pipe joints that should have been brazed by induction heating.
The Navy had experienced a series of failures with silver-brazing, indicating that the traditional quality assurance method, hydrostatic testing, was inadequate. Therefore, the Navy directed the shipyard to use ultrasonic testing on the Thresher’s silver-brazed joints. However, the navy did not specify the extent of the testing required and did not confirm that the testing program was properly implemented. When the ultrasonic testing proved burdensome and time consuming, and when the pressures of the schedule became significant, the shipyard discontinued its use in favor of the traditional method. This action was taken despite the fact that 20 of 145 joints passing hydrostatic testing failed to meet minimum bonding specifications when subjected to the ultrasonic testing.
Finally, Government specifications were not strictly enforced. The Navy found that the reducing valve components installed in the pressurized air systems used to blow the main ballast tanks of the submarine did not meet design specifications; because of the magnitude of the pressures anticipated, the valve manufacture had added a strainer feature upstream of the reducing valves in order to protect the sensitive valves. When the Navy conducted tests on another Thresher class submarine, it was found that the pressure drop across the component at high flow rates caused entrained moisture to accumulate on the strainers and form enough ice to block the air flow. This phenomenon, called Venturi cooling, was thought to be the reason that the Thresher’s attempts to blow its main ballast tanks were ineffective.
The relationship between the Electric Boat Company and the US Navy, when analyzed with the ethical principal of contractarianism, produces many issues that could have lead to the loss of the USS Thresher. Contractarianism states that all ethical and moral views are based upon an explicit contract between the parties involved. The major issue concerning their contractual relationship was the pressure the Navy placed on the Electric Boat Company to complete their most advanced submarine ever designed. At the time the Thresher was being built, the Cold War was intensifying between the Soviet Union and the United States, and nuclear attacks from missile submarines were the leading threat to the nation. Hunter-Killer subs like the Thresher were desperately needed to ensure the nation’s safety, and a lot of attention was focused on the program and the Electric Boat Company by the Navy. The construction of the Thresher did not meet the Navy’s time-frame expectations, taking nearly two years to build. They wanted construction time for the new Thresher Class Subs to match the Polaris Missile Sub Program, which at the time was producing submarines in about fourteen months.
As soon as the Thresher was finished, the Navy wanted it tested and mission ready as soon as possible. After many months of test missions, the Thresher headed back to Portsmouth for its nine month overhaul to fix all the issues that had arisen since it was built. Many of the problems found had obviously resulted from a rushed construction. Numerous valves in the reactor cooling system and the ballast tanks were installed in reverse and even the periscope was wired in reversed. The time-frame for the overhaul was not satisfactory for the Navy and they pressured the Electric Boat Company to finish the repairs and upgrades as quick as possible. Even after the overhaul, it was noted in the Naval Investigation that the Thresher continued to have issues with its always troublesome hydraulic and air systems and that several flexible hosing components for the system were not installed. They were noted as fixed by the shipyard, but were still problematic according to crew reports. It is important to note that the air system in the Thresher was responsible for filling its ballast tanks with air so the ship would surface in emergency situations. Once the overhaul was complete, it was only several missions later when the Thresher sank.
Though none of the technical issues mentioned were a direct cause of the Thresher’s disaster, they are representative of the kinds of problems the Electric Boat Company encountered when trying to comply with their contract to the Navy. They had no choice but to adhere to the schedules and time-frames set forth by the Navy, and by doing so had produced a trouble ridden vessel. If the Navy had relaxed the pressure they placed on the Electric Boat Company and not rushed the construction of Thresher, perhaps the flaw that ended the Thresher would have been corrected.
Ethical relativism is the view that moral judgments are essentially dependent upon the standards that define a particular moral code. The practices and the norms accepted by a social group or an individual at a specific time and place are also viewed as ethical relativism. In the case if the USS Thresher, many of the stake holders had different views about the submarine, and what its purpose was. For instance, the United States, feeling great pressure from Soviet Union’s threats during the Cold War led to the development of weapons which could protect the United States from attack. Feeling such pressure, the United States Navy sought to build a fleet of attack submarines which could hunt and kill enemy submarines in what was considered a rushed time frame.
The construction of the Thresher set many precedents in American submarine design. The Thresher was the first of a new design of nuclear powered submarines and as a result engineers focused mainly on its power plant. Consequently two sets of standards were developed by the vessel builders. Although great care was taken when designing the nuclear components of the submarine, many just as important pieces were simply neglected or overlooked by the less stringent standards. Builders assigned less importance to the steam and saltwater systems, even though those systems were crucial to the operation and safety of the vessel. If these points were recognized, the ultimate demise of the Thresher could have been avoided
As far as other key players in this disaster, the Electric Boat Company of Portsmouth, Massachusetts, played an integral part in the faulty submarine. Feeling pressure from its customer’s contract, the Electric Boat Company did what it could to keep up. Time consuming procedures such as those used to check silver bronzed joints using ultrasonic testing technology were upset by the Navy and quickly abandoned by the builders. Of the 145 joints tested using a more traditional hydrostatic test, 20 of them did not pass minimum standards using the Navy sanctioned ultrasonic test. The Electric Boat Company was clearly feeling the squeeze. Producing five similar submarines at the time made resource availability tight. As a result inferior, unsanctioned parts were used in vital areas. After investigating the sister ships of the Thresher, the Navy recognized that the reducing valve components installed in the pressurized air systems used to blow the main ballast tanks of the submarine did not meet design specifications. The valve used had an added strainer feature inside the reducing valves which was supposed to protect the sensitive valves from particulate matter in the sea water. It was later found that the valves suffered from the Venturi Cooling phenomenon. A pressure drop across the component at high flow rates would cause moisture to accumulate on the strainers, which would form ice and ultimately block the air flow not allowing the ballast tanks to blow in an emergency situation.
In the case of the USS Thresher there are many instances in which the ethical principle of rights can be applied. “In the strongest sense rights are justified claims to the protection of person’s important interests. When the right is effective, this protection is provided as something that is owed to persons for their own sakes. The upholding of rights is thus essential for human dignity.” The one hundred and twenty-nine crew members and civilians aboard the USS Thresher had the human right to be occupants of the safest submarine of all means possible. The potential loss of human life should not have been overlooked in this situation or any situation. This human right is highlighted in the American Constitution where it mentions that every human has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By all means the submarine could have been safer and more precautions should have been used in the production and maintenance of it. In addition to the humanistic right that the crew of the submarine had to live there were also several claims made in this case. For instance the United States Government made a legal claim against the Electric Boat Company that produced the U.S.S. Thresher. The governmental figures were under the impression that the company would produce the highest quality product possible and that there would be no technical issues present. This was a false assumption because the submarine ended up having multiple technical problems and as a result a wide range of ethical issues arose. The families of the perished crew members and civilians also have a claim against the United States Military, specifically the Navy. These families have moral claims against the United States Navy because as a result of some of the decisions they made, their loved ones were sacrificed to the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing that the United States Navy could do would bring these individuals back to life, but it is almost expected that to prevent this from happening again that more reliable resources would be needed and stricter inspection techniques would be used. All of these rights and claims are an important ethical principle to have applied to this case because the rights of humans are very important when you are dealing with a potential life and death situation.
Deontology is the theory that some actions are obligatory irrespective of the pleasure or painful consequences that are produced. This principle focuses on doing good for the sake of duty. Engineers have the duty to produce a safe product. According to the engineer’s code of ethics, the safety and welfare of the public should be held paramount. In the case of the Thresher disaster, the engineers partially held up their end of the deal. After the sinking of the Thresher the nuclear fuel, which could pose a health threat to the waters surrounding the sunken submarine never leaked. In this respect the engineers designed well developed devices which contain the nuclear fuel. Although the engineers designed devices to contain the nuclear fuel, they however designed a faulty vessel. The engineers focused primarily on new technology leaving just as important safety systems and primary submarine systems in the dark.
Like the engineers, the workers who produced the submarine have duties as well. It is the duty of the ship yard workers to up hold the values of the Portsmouth, Massachusetts Electric Boat Company. This would mean that workers should keep quality assurance in mind while maintaining schedule requirements as well as sticking to the plans provided by engineers. Plans are designed a certain way and spec for certain parts for a reason. If parts are not available, workers should consult engineers as to the best way to continue with progress.
The crew of the USS Thresher was enlisted in the Navy. As part of enlisting, and vowing to protect the United States, it is the mariner’s duty to place themselves in dangerous situations which may result in injury or death in order to protect the public. Service men are also expected to follow a chain of command which is not to be broken. Service men have the duty to follow all orders to the best of their ability.
When applying the principal of consequentialism to Thresher disaster, there are several issues that evolve from decisions being made about the vessel, whose consequences were never considered. Consequentialism is the moral theory that best choice or action is that which creates the best outcome for the most people. One of the first decisions made was to push submarine technology to its limits by creating the deepest diving submarine in the US Navy. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who was head of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program at the time the Thresher was designed, strongly opposed this decision. He thought the risk was too great and that it was a complete waste of time and effort to design stronger hulls and create stronger steel alloys. Others in the navy however were more concerned about the stealth ability of the Thresher, and in the end decided to push submarine technology to its limits despite the risks.
In the designing of the Thresher, the engineers built the entire sub around its nuclear reactor and its newly developed sonar system. The Navy wanted the Thresher to be one of its fastest subs, so a lot of time and effort was put into developing a powerful and efficient nuclear propulsion system. They also wanted the Thresher to be able detect any enemy sub activity before the enemy could detect them. Before the Thresher, a sub’s sonar was one of the last items to be incorporated into the design and it was typically placed where enough room could be found. The Thresher set a new standard by having the entire sub designed around its nose mounted sonar. By deciding to give these two aspects so much time and attention, the emergency systems in the Thresher were neglected. In what would be the US Navy’s deepest diving sub, the engineers continued to use traditional ballasting systems which had never been used at the depths the Thresher was planning to operate. These systems were also later found to be susceptible to the Venturi Cooling phenomenon in its air system valves. By not deciding to focus on the emergency systems, when the Thresher’s reactor shut down, its emergency power sources were too weak to propel the sub all the way towards the surface. As a last resort, the crew attempted to blow its ballast tanks, but the valves in the air system seized up and it could not rise to the surface.
The final issue concerning the Thresher and the failure to review consequences was the decision to continue full operation of the sub despite the frequent reoccurrence of known problems. Though the Thresher never suffered from a single serious problem, it was constantly plague with minor defects. From reversed valves, to reversed switches, to incorrect instrument readings, to a broken diesel back-up generator, the sub was continually ridden with small problems. One of the most well known problems was that some of the silver brazing done on joints of pipes for various systems were not completely welded. When asked about the silver brazing during the Naval Inquiry into the disaster, Lieutenant Commander William J. Cowhill, who was executive officer of the Thresher from March 1962 to January 1963, commented by saying, “up to the degree we had reached in this art, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is equal or better that other submarine builders, but we have reached only so far in this art.” Out of the thousands of piping joints in the sub, fourteen percent had failed the ultrasonic testing done on them and hundreds more were not even tested even though the brazing process was known to be problematic. Despite the unknown condition of joints in its air, water, and hydraulic pipes, the decision was made to send the Thresher to sea where it would suffer the catastrophic burst of a joint on a sea water intake pipe in the room of its nuclear reactor. With so many problems and issues concerning the vessel from its very beginning, if the time had been taken to review the consequences that could of occurred from the decisions that were made, many of these issues would have been resolved before the Thresher’s last dive.
Several recommendations can be made in this case to primarily eliminate the technical problems that existed, and in turn resolving these issues would resolve any ethical problems that had surfaced as a result. First, cheaper and less reliable resources were used on almost every part of the U.S.S. Thresher. If more expensive and reliable parts were used then the U.S.S. Thresher may not have suffered its tragic fate. Another recommendation in this case is that the internal piping system should have been improved, the fittings primarily, by properly bonding the pipes together with the silver-brazed fittings. If the pipes were properly bonded then they more than likely would not have pulled loose from one another like they are suspected of doing. As previously stated when the internal piping system began to pull apart water began to spray all over the place, including on the submarine’s electrical circuits shorting them out. The submarine then lost most of if not all of its power when the electrical circuits shorted out. In an effort to prevent water from spraying on the electrical circuits the builders of the submarine should have covered the electrical circuits with plastic or some other heavy insulator so water could not contact the circuits from the inside. Another recommendation that can be made in this case is to not dive at depths that had never really been tested at before. The submarine may have made forty or so successful dives at that depth, but there was a drastic jump in depth from the previous deepest dive. The results and effects of diving to these depths were unknown, and were these deep dives really necessary for this time period? Also to prevent sinking during testing sessions some sort of a safety device should be used so that in case of an incident that the submarine could simply be lifted out of the water. In this case I would suggest that some sort of a “harness” be used and fit loosely around the submarine. This harness would be attached to some sort of a crane that could lift the submarine out of the water in a time of crisis; in the case of the U.S.S. Thresher this simple procedure could have saved the lives of one hundred and twenty-nine innocent victims. The best recommendation that would have solved more than anything else would have been to improve the inspection techniques used when checking over the submarine for problems. If the inspectors would have inspected the submarine closer they would have noticed most of if not all of the aforementioned problems and as a result these problems would have had to been fixed before it was allowed to navigate the water again. All of these recommendations in their own sense would have fixed an individual issue, but in order for the submarine to be the safest possible all of these recommendations would had to have been followed. The U.S.S. Thresher disaster will go down in history as one, if not the most, tragic naval disaster in history. As a result of the disaster new inspection techniques were used and submarines were constructed with more reliable resources.
National Geographic: Lost Subs; Disaster at Sea. Prod. Simon Boyce. Writ. Simon Boyce and Jeffery Shear. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2002.
Polmar, Norman. The Death of the U.S.S. Thresher. Guildford, Connecticut: The Lyons
THRESHER. Subnet. November 2004.
USN Ships — USS Thresher (SSN-593). March 30, 2001. Department of the Navy — Naval Historical Center. November 2004.
USS THRESHER. June 1994. Disaster City. November 2004.