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.

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