Journalist Hellwarth chronicles American efforts to create an underwater habitat that would open the ocean's depths to exploration, at the same time that astronauts were racing to the moon.
In 1959, Navy doctor George Bond, was given the project to train and equip seamen to escape from damaged submarines while avoiding the bends, the often-fatal arterial gas embolisms caused by rapid decompression of air as a diver rapidly surfaces. Bond envisaged expanding the program beyond rescue missions to encompass a wide range of underwater activities—scientific and industrial as well as military. He anticipated President Kennedy, who in 1961 proposed a major underwater exploration program as a matter of absolute necessity to the national interest, to the cost of $2 billion over the next decade. “Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it,” said the president. This resulted in the creation of the Sealab program, which Bond was chosen to lead. Not only were the space and underwater exploration programs contemporaneous, but they shared key personnel such as Malcolm Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the earth who also led a Sealab II team that lived underwater successfully for 30 days. “Never had so many people lived and worked for so long at such depths…a grand total of three and a half man-years living on the bottom,” writes the author. Unfortunately, the Sealab III mission was prematurely aborted after developing a serious leak, and that aspect of the program ended—although offshoots from it (many of which are still top secret) continued, including tapping submerged Soviet communications cables. Another offshoot was the development of technology necessary for off-shore drilling of oil and gas.
Intriguing account of a relatively unknown program for undersea exploration.