Sealab

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

Was there a “great leap for mankind” moment for Sealab?
Sealab I was perhaps the great leap because they were able to build a sea floor shelter—a base—and put it 200 feet down in the water, twenty-five miles southwest of Bermuda in the summer of 1964. They got the habitat on the ocean floor, the aquanauts in the habitat, and they lived there for an unprecedented ten days. They probably would have lasted the planned-for three weeks, if not for a hurricane that threatened to jostle the support crew at the surface.

But there were no television cameras around, and not a lot of press. A great leap can only be a great leap if someone is watching.

Why the lack of attention?
It was partly that space was taking up a lot of the media’s attention. Also, covering developments taking place at the bottom of the sea was a challenge for reporters. There were monitors on the sea floor but the pictures weren’t great. You could get a better image from the moon than from the bottom of the ocean. So it was not “made for television.”

And an aquanaut couldn’t address the public like the astronauts did from the moon, at least not without sounding silly.
The aquanauts were breathing a gas mixture that was largely helium, so you get this chipmunk effect on the voice. They would have been almost incomprehensible. Again, not made for TV.

There were some deaths and injuries during the course of Sealab. How did they impact the program?
The biggest impact was the death [of a diver] in 1969 that became the catalyst to end the program. A lot of people felt that a single death shouldn’t mean that the project should end; it should mean that they learn from the mistake and proceed with what was about to be a very ambitious and productive next incarnation. From there you could point back to 1967 when three astronauts [Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chafee] were killed in a launch pad fire at Cape Canaveral, Florida. That did not spell the end of the space program.

But what became clear later is that it was not the death that scared everyone off. By that time the Navy had learned what it had wanted to learn for military diving purposes, and realized it did not need to continue to engage in housing divers on the ocean floor. So the death became a convenient way of explaining why Sealab was not going to continue. And because the program hadn’t received much attention there was not a big public outcry.

Have we answered the questions: How long can a man stay down? And how deep can a man go?
No, not entirely. Science requires money and as priorities shifted the money ran out and the answers to those questions are still not definitively known. Also, remotely operated vehicle (R.O.V.) technology got a lot better, and such machines can be more cost effective, reach greater depths, and keep divers out of harm’s way.

While the offshore oil industry needed a workforce that could function in deep water (to set up offshore oil platforms), the industry did not push beyond the depth that it needed. But with the technology that came out of Sealab you could have a workforce put in a full day’s shift, and there are still guys out there doing underwater construction work, building pipelines along the ocean floor. When you see a construction worker high above the ground building a skyscraper you say: “Wow, that’s quite a feat.” You don’t think so much about the guy at the bottom of the North Sea doing a similar kind of job. But they are out there, and they can be out there because in the 1960s it was shown that they could get to that depth and stay more than a few minutes.

The Navy has long been out of the sea dwelling business, but it hasn’t got out of the deep diving business, in which it’s using methods and technologies that evolved from Sealab. How those methods are applied today is a matter of some mystery because the Navy doesn’t like to talk about that. But they know how to take divers to great depths and keep them there for as long as they need to be.

And ultimately Sealab III provided cover for a secret program, right?
It was Cold War spy stuff where they were housing divers in miniature versions of Sealab that were attached to or built into submarines, and then out of those mobile units the divers could come and go. There were two things the divers did. One was to collect Russian test missiles, which could be brought back to the lab and reverse-engineered. The other was the tapping of communications cables that were running across the Sea of Okhotsk. Information was siphoned from those cables and taken for analysis.

How did people respond when you told them you were writing a book about Sealab?
My experience writing the book was that it’s just not much remembered. The most I would get from people was “Oh, yeah, I kind of remember Sealab.” I did encounter a number of individuals who fondly remember their Sealab III model, which you could buy and put together. Some people remembered Sealab as being a classified program. But it was trying not to be.

Ben Hellwarth’s “Sealab” site

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