A recent interview in the UT San Diego entitled ‘Underwater Space Race in Scripps Canyon’ discusses Ben Hellwarth’s new book about the 1960’s Sealab project – our country’s ‘innerspace race’ if you will.
I’ve written about Sealab before here on ‘a New Life’, as it marked a pivotal time for human exploration of the ocean. This is when it all started, and in many way came crashing to an end.
Life on the seafloor is immensely complicated, as we require an artificial atmosphere to breathe – and that’s just minimal survival. The many factors effecting the ambient environment must be controlled to meet all basic human needs in a closed system – food, water, shelter – and is exponentially complicated by pressure. Pressure has deep impacts on our physiology, which alone is something that we are still struggling with to understand to its fullest extent in the undersea industry.
Sealab’s approach was largely ‘top-down’, that is employing massive topside infrastructure with critical and terminal s
urface connectivity to the aquanauts. Many of the methods and technologies used then are still used today in the offshore oil and gas industry for saturation diving operations. When I say massive, I mean MASSIVE. Putting just one person on the seafloor for enough time to carry out a task, let alone spend just one overnight is mind-boggling, and incredibly cost-prohibitive. Tens of thousands of dollars per day for a small scale operation is not unheard of if any substantial depth is required, and it goes up from there. To do this at scale and support a more publicly accessible undersea habitation operation – a movement towards frontier colonization – would be impractical, hence the numerous efforts since then to improve these technologies and take incremental steps towards both technology, and techniques, to get there – and we indeed need to for reasons that are obvious to me anyway. I emphasize techniques, as it was a simple procedural error that led to the end of Sealab, resulting in the death of one of the aquanauts. The technology was right there…ready to fuel an evolutionary path as with many model demonstration programs.
In some ways, it’s all quite interesting to watch the world turn and efforts come full circle. My own work in the Bahamas, which has taken place on the very test grounds where the likes of John Perry, Ed Link, and others experimented with early underwater habitation in the 60’s and 70’s as part of the early life in the sea initiative, has taken me down a path to pursue ‘bottom-up’ undersea habitation. That is, low-cost, fully autonomous systems that enable small but essential steps in improving human performance at depths nearing the lower limits of mesophotic coral ecosystems (200-500 feet). Today of course, we have consumer level products that allow diving to these depths fairly routinely. Take these toys, coupled with the drive and ambition of the good ole boys, and we might very well realize a next life in the sea initiative – that’s what this is all about anyway. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have some government support!
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Sealab was employed in Scripps Canyon, off of La Jolla California – the same location where one of my primary supporters, the Waitt Foundation (via their National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program), finds its home.
Ahhh, the cycles of life. As much as we try to fight for change, for better or worse, it is our predetermined path that we indeed must follow. Of course there’s no fun in taking the easy street – so work relentlessly for what you believe in. I know I do. When the stars align, I’ll be ready, and I’ll be there – finding ‘a new life in the sea’.
We’re not too far away.