America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor
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Three hundred feet down, deeper than most divers were equipped to go, the World War II-era submarine Archerfish prepared to release two passengers into a dim sea with little more than the breath they held in their lungs. A spate of foul weather and strong currents had complicated some trial runs, but now, early on the first of October 1959, the sun came up with just a few wispy clouds on the horizon. In calm water, the sub set out from the U.S. Navy base at Key West, heading southwest into the Gulf of Mexico. .The mission’s unusual aim was to prove that a trapped submariner could reach the distant surface on his own—and live to tell about it. No escape quite like this had ever been made, and not everyone was convinced it was a good idea to try. But one of the passengers, Commander George Bond, a Navy doctor, had argued for attempting to make the escape. As was typical of him, he also argued that he should be the one to do it.
George Bond was forty-three, thought his soft features and jowls made him look older. He was a couple inches over six feet, barrel-chested and thickly built, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and owlish dark eyebrows. Bond had joined the Navy just a few years before but he already has a reputation fir being a maverick with a fondness for showboating. He preferred not to be photographed without his pipe. Daring, gregarious, kindhearted, even his detractors found him difficult not to like. He often lapsed into the disarming Appalachian brogue of the clients he had served not so long ago as a country doctor. His resonant baritone, noticeably seasoned somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, has the soothing, unhurried intonation of a storyteller sent from heaven. It was a voice that had served him well as a lay preacher back home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Dr. Bond has recently become head of the Medical Research Laboratory at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base at New London, Connecticut. Most American submariners got their specialized schooling at the base, which was named for New London, but was actually in neighboring Groton, on the eastern bank of the Thames River. Scientists employed at the base’s medical lab concerned themselves with a variety physiological puzzles such as those related to submarine escape. In the early years of the U.S. submarine service, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no procedure, and virtually no hope, for submariners trapped in down subs, even in relatively shallow water. Safety features in the early boats were primitive at best, and gradual asphyxiation or drowning were often the survivors’ macabre options. But after three submarines sand in the 1920s, newer American subs were fitted with the equivalent of emergency exits, known as escape trunks.
Copyright © 2012 by Ben Hellwarth
In the 1960s, as NASA was working to land a man on the Moon, the U.S. Navy was trying to develop an underwater version of a space station. This was to be a habitat from which divers could work for extended periods to aid in undersea exploration, and to recover wrecked submarines and aircraft. In Sealab, Ben Hellwarth finally gives the ill-fated “Man-in-Sea” program the attention it deserves.
Hellwarth begins by recalling the roots of the program in earlier attempts at “saturation diving,” inspired partly by a separate program overseen by Jacques Cousteau in France. We go on to read of the highs and lows of the perennially underfunded Navy program until it ended in 1969. Three standalone missions—Sealab I, II and III—were completed; each witnessed advances but put the perils of the enterprise in stark relief.
Sealab I, resembling a freight train’s tank car, landed 193 feet below the Atlantic in July 1964. Four aquanauts moved into the facility and returned to the surface after 12 days, making them the first humans to “live” in the sea. Sealab II, submerged off California’s coast 205 feet down, weighed seven times more; it was graced by the presence of former Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who remained there for 30 days. In all, Sealab II aquanauts logged 3.5 man-years on the sea bottom. It was during Sealab III, larger still and at 600 feet down, that tragedy struck: aquanaut Berry Cannon died when his breathing equipment failed. That event—and a host of other technical nightmares brought to light by a formal investigation—doomed the program, but its legacy lives on in technology adopted by deep-sea oil drilling companies.
Sealab shines a spotlight on a long-neglected chapter in the history of undersea exploration.
Hardcover Book : 320 pages
Publisher: Simon And Schuster, Inc. ( January 10, 2012 )
Item #: 13-141346
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 inches
Product Weight: 25.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)