Sealab

America’s forgotten quest to live and work on the ocean floor.

Sealab

Sealab III at Long Beach, California (1968).

Bond. George Bond. As the father of Sealab—the marine version of the U.S. space program—his is a name that ought to be familiar to Americans. Yet he remains largely unknown, in spite of the fact that his pioneering work enabled sea-dwelling divers to break age-old depth barriers—and revolutionized deep-sea exploration.

“As terrestrial people, we don’t understand what is involved with going underwater,” says Ben Hellwarth, author of “Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor” (Simon & Schuster), which chronicles the efforts of a brave group of aquanauts determined to conquer a hostile undersea environment that is every bit as dangerous as space.

To be sure, the bottom of the ocean is anything but a media-friendly environment, which perhaps explains why the low-budget Sealab projects (I, II and III) received precious little media coverage. It didn’t help that there was no “great leap for mankind” moment, though had any aquanaut addressed the public (a la Neil Armstrong), he would have inevitably sounded like a cartoon character, thanks to the helium-oxygen mix that the aquanauts breathed in their undersea living quarters.

“Part of what I’m hoping to do with the book is to bring some long overdue attention to Sealab,” says Hellwarth, who recently spoke with Failure about the legacy of Sealab, and whether or not we’ve answered the questions posed by Bond: How long can a man stay down? And how deep can a man go?

Tell me about George Bond.
Bond was a country doctor who served a small community of people in the back woods of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The ocean was far from his thoughts, until he joined the Navy in mid-life. He trained to be a submarine medical officer, and as part of the training he learned to dive. He became fascinated with diving, and when he had the opportunity to stay with the Navy instead of going back to his rural medical practice he did so.

Bond had a grand vision of sea colonies and housing people on the sea floor. But first he had to get them there and figure out if he could keep them safe. It was a learning curve and what would come out of it was not entirely clear, but it seemed important to see if we could answer the questions and proceed from there. He believed that divers and deep sea exploration needed a breakthrough like the one in space.

Where did the name Sealab come from?
I spent a fair amount of time trying to get to the origin of that. Bond obtained a surplus “survival pod,” and the guys at the Medical Research Lab [at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base at New London, Connecticut] started to hack and weld to see if they could make something that might resemble a sea dwelling. It was an after-hours project; the guys were out in the parking lot of the base in their spare time. And at one point—in frustration—Walt Mazzone, Bond’s right-hand man, took a black marker and scrawled on the structure’s side: “Bond’s Folly – Sealab I.” That was the name that stuck.

Sealab was happening at the same time as the Apollo program. How were the two projects similar?
The spirit of going somewhere where human beings had not gone before is the main parallel. No one had ever dived very deep or stayed down very long, so there was an unseen, unexplored world there that seemed reasonable to try to reach. But Sealab was not nearly as embraced or well-funded as the space program.

How else were they different?
After President Kennedy’s 1961 speech in which he set the goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade, there was not only the money, but the national wherewithal to do it. By stark contrast, Bond was alone in a lab trying to get permission from his boss to lock volunteers in a pressure chamber for a week or two to further the science, to see whether it was possible to make these dives. Even people in the Navy thought it was kind of crazy—the idea that divers could stay down for more than mere minutes, and go to depths well beyond the conventional wisdom at the time.

What kind of dangers did aquanauts face?
The first thing was decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” which can occur if a diver ascends too quickly to the surface. It was understood that the aquanauts could not drift upward because bubbles would form in their blood and tissues, which could cause pain and death. That was an ever-present concern, because the methods they were using to bring divers back to the surface—for dives that were lasting days instead of minutes—was all new methodology.

The cold was always a problem, and perhaps a lesser appreciated problem. One of the things they were trying to work out was how to keep divers warm enough to make them useful for hours at a time. And the cold was potentially deadly, especially in light of the fact that they were breathing exotic gas mixtures (because ordinary air becomes toxic beyond certain depths and pressures).

Also, they had to worry about the reliability of their prototype equipment—everything from the depth gauges to the breathing gear—which was quirky and not infallible. Those quirks could kill you if you weren’t paying attention. And the lab itself was a dangerous place. There were moments where they had to make adjustments to make sure the air they were breathing didn’t kill them.

Last but not least, the ocean is in itself dynamic and dangerous. They did have shark cages, but it was a threat they hadn’t even considered—venomous scorpion fish—that came to cause them problems during Sealab II.

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