While man was flying into outer space in the 1960s, he was also diving into an underwater world that was almost as mysterious. Futurists foresaw a day when entire communities of "aquanauts," a person who stays underwater for more than 24 hours, would live and work under the ocean for months on end without resurfacing. While that vision has yet to pass, there have been, and continue to be, quite a few artificial deep sea habitats that man has used to dip his toe into the waters around us.
It should come as no surprise that the man responsible for popularizing oceanography in the mid-20th century, Jacques Cousteau, is also the same man who created the first underwater habitats. While Cousteau constructed three Conshelf (short for Continental Shelf) habitats between 1962 and 1965, it was Conshelf II, in June 1963, that would become his most famous.
A team of five men and a parrot, which was delivered to the station inside an empty pressure cooker, stayed for 30 days at a depth of 33ft., surrounded by beautiful coral reefs in the Red Sea. They lived inside the futuristic "Starfish House," a large complex with four arms that radiated from a central hub. The building offered fairly comfortable living, with gourmet food, electricity, air conditioning, fresh water, fresh air, a telephone, and a television feed, all supplied from a support ship on the surface. The team even had their very own flying saucer-shaped submarine for exploring their new deep sea neighborhood.
By Cousteau's design, life on Conshelf II appeared idyllic. The men sang songs, smoked cigarettes, and had quite a bit of fun, while also doing a lot of work out on the ocean floor. Near the end of their stay, Cousteau and his wife visited the Starfish House to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary, complete with champagne that wouldn't bubble under such extreme atmospheric pressure. As he always did, Cousteau filmed this expedition, and his documentary World Without Sun went on to earn the explorer a second Academy Award. (Before you look, it's not available on DVD or YouTube, unfortunately.)
The U.S. Navy conducted their own underwater experiments with three SEALAB missions between 1965 and 1969. SEALAB I kicked off in July 1965 for a planned 21 day excursion 192ft. underwater off the coast of Bermuda. However, the plug was pulled after only 11 days when a hurricane developed in the Atlantic Ocean.
SEALAB II was deployed off the coast of California in 1966 at a depth of 205ft. The horizontal steel cylinder was accidentally placed at an angle on the sea floor, so it gained the nickname, "The Tiltin' Hilton." Three 10-man crews stayed underwater for 15 days at a time, though one diver, Scott Carpenter, a former Mercury astronaut, would stay for 30 days to simulate a long-term space mission. During that time, Carpenter also made history when, from 200ft. below sea level, he talked on the radio with Gordon Cooper, a Gemini V astronaut who was in orbit 230 miles above the earth.
In 1969, SEALAB III was deployed at a depth of 600ft. off the coast of California. Unfortunately, there were quite a few suspicious events surrounding the mission. Almost immediately after the project began, the habitat began to leak. When divers were sent to fix it, sadly, one man died due to faulty equipment, and the project was shut down. Then, as the six SEALAB aquanauts were decompressing on the deck of the support ship, there were reportedly numerous attempts to sabotage their air supply. Had an armed guard not been placed at the chamber, it's very likely the project would have ended in even more tragedy. Although there were no further missions, many in the military have credited the technology and techniques pioneered by SEALAB for making several covert underwater operations possible during the Cold War.
After Mission 6 resurfaced, they became instant celebrities. They enjoyed a ticker tape parade in Chicago, were invited to address Congress, and First Lady Pat Nixon had them over for lunch at the White House. Despite their achievements, they were still called names like "the aquababes" by the press. While they may not have gained the respect of everyone at the time, they helped pave the way for women in the field of marine science, as well as NASA's space program.
Jules' Undersea Lodge
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While BioSUB might not have been the lap of luxury, his "SEALAB on a budget" ideas worked and impressed many in the underwater research community. In fact, he has been invited to help engineer a new deep sea habitat that will be used to send aquanauts to the ocean floor on a mission to spend 80 days underwater, smashing the previous record of 69 days. Of course he was initially asked to become one of those world-record aquanauts, but apparently his two weeks underwater was enough for him. His response to their invitation: "I like the things we have up here." I guess not everyone was born to live under the sea.
Who knows? Maybe someday we'll all spend a little time under the sea. Would you live in an underwater habitat if you had the chance?