Whatever became of the U.S. Navy undersea lab experiments of the 1960’s and ’70s?
CAPT George Bond, USN, lead the research effort for the Navy that lead to something all recreational SCUBA divers rely on today. (No, scuba was invented by a partnership between Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau and E Gagnon (1)). Dive Decompression Tables.
SeaLab I, II, and III were the result of experiments on divers working at depth where avoiding decompression sickness, “the bends”, meant long periods of decompression to recover from only minutes exposure. Underwater, at depth, breathing surface air, as in the scuba cylinders or through a hose-diving helmet, would result in gasses building up in the diver’s bloodstream. Without stages of ascent and wait time, the gas would form bubbles in the person’s tissues causing pain, injury and even death.
Research investigated long-duration exposure underwater, living and working in habitats at different depths (up to 600 feet) whether there were negative effects and finding that a single decompression regimen at the conclusion of the experiment were sufficient to prevent injury. Studies during this time on nitrogen narcosis have provided recreational and commercial divers today with reliable timetables for recovering or decompressing, and the effects on the body. Other developments from the SeaLab program was the development of neoprene which everyone from divers to surfers now use in prolonging exposure to cold seawater.
One notable research participant for the Navy was both a pioneering astronaut as well as an aquanaut. Scott Carpenter, was the second American in space, in the Gemini program, and was an “inner space” pioneer. He spent a then -record 30 days in SeaLab Ii offshore La Jolla, 200 feet beneath the surface. Later, in SeaLab III, an experiment in underwater welding resulted in an accident where one researcher died due to asphyxiation. This was a factor in terminating the experiments in SeaLab III. But the research into saturation diving by the U.S. Navy continues today. In point of fact, it was this continuing research that has lead to special operations involving saturation diving and part of the training for submarine rescue operations. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Undersea Medicine program is the descendent of these undersea experiments.
(1) In 1942, Cousteau and Gagnan co-invented a demand valve system that would supply divers with compressed air when they breathed