The Descent Of The Trieste
Early in the morning of January 23, 1960, six months before the George Washington fired its first Polaris missiles, two U.S. Navy ships were lying-to at a remote location in the Pacific Ocean far from the sight of land.
One of the ships was the destroyer escort USS Lewis; the other was the tug USS Wandank. Between them, with its decks awash, was an odd-looking submersible, an oceanographic research vessel known as a bathyscaphe (meaning "deep-diving craft"). From the bathyscaphe's almost-submerged hull, a square structure resembling a conning tower projected upward. On it was lettered the name Trieste .
The three vessels were assembled over the Challenger Deep of the Marianas trench, the deepest place in any of the oceans of the world. Beneath their keels the bottom was almost 7 miles down — a distance farther than from sea level to the summit of Mt. Everest.
Over the years adventurous men, overcoming all obstacles, had scaled Everest, had braved ice and bitter cold to reach the world's poles, and had penetrated the most forbidding jungles and deserts. Every extremity of the earth had been conquered except one — the uttermost depth of the sea — and two brave men were to try that extremity this day, descending in the Trieste .
The Trieste 's hull, unlike the hulls of conventional submarines, was filled with gasoline. Gasoline, being lighter than water, provided buoyancy, and at the same time it provided a counterpressure against the crush of seawater outside its hull, counterpressure that its builders believed would keep the hull from being crushed in the depths.
Projecting downward beneath the hull was a spherical gondola of five-inch steel. Inside the gondola was a space 5 feet 8 inches high by 38 inches square — cramped quarters for two men.
Powerful lights could be switched on in front of the gondola's thick porthole to provide illumination in depths where no light had ever shown before. Battery-driven propellers would provide limited forward motion when and if the craft reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep safely.
Into the Trieste 's conning tower went Lt. Don Walsh, a twenty-eight-year-old U.S. Navy submarine officer, and Jacques Piccard, a Swiss scientist and son of the late Professor Auguste Piccard, who had designed the bathyscaphe. The craft's seventieth dive under Navy auspices began at 11:14 in the morning as the two men opened valves that admitted two tons of seawater into spaces in the hull. The Trieste sank from sight into the depths, going down at a rate of 4 feet a second.
As the craft descended, the light of the sun outside its porthole grew dimmer, until at a depth of 1,000 feet the darkness outside was complete. At 15,000 feet, contact with the Wandank on the underwater telephone was lost, as Walsh and Piccard had expected.
The descent continued without incident until suddenly at 30,000 feet the two men were startled by a sharp and ominous crack. Not knowing if the sound signaled the impending destruction of the bathyscaphe under the almost unimaginably great pressure of the sea around it, Walsh and Piccard waited apprehensively. No further sounds were heard, though, and the descent continued.
At 33,000 feet Walsh turned on the Trieste 's fathometer, but the bottom was still too far away to register. At 36,000 feet Walsh and Piccard slowed the rate of their descent to a half a foot a second so that if by chance their craft were to strike the bottom unexpectedly, it would do so without disabling force.
At last at a registered depth of 37,500 feet, the fathometer 198 began to trace the outlines of the bottom beneath them. When it indicated that only 8 fathoms of water remained beneath the Trieste , the two men began to see a grayish-white bottom in the illumination of the bathyscaphe's lights. They could also see the cause of the sharp report they had heard at 30,000 feet — the Trieste 's porthole had cracked under pressure.
Soon after the bottom came in view, Piccard made a sighting which in itself accomplished one of the most important objectives of the descent. Tapping Walsh on the shoulder, the Swiss scientist pointed through the porthole to a flounderlike fish about a foot long, swimming on the bottom un-bothered by the light of the bathyscaphe's beams. The appearance of the fish proved that life existed even at the very bottom of the sea, where the pressure was a staggering 16,000 pounds per square inch.
At 1:10 in the afternoon the Trieste gently touched the bottom, stirring up a cloud of white silt. (Its depth indicator showed 37,800 feet, but this figure was later corrected to 35,800 feet.) The exultant Walsh and Piccard unfurled flags of the United States and Switzerland which they had brought with them for the occasion. Solemnly they shook hands.
In the historic moment Walsh decided to try communicating on the underwater telephone with the tug 7 miles above, little expecting to be heard.
"Wandank, this is Trieste ," he called. "We are on the bottom of the Challenger Deep at sixty-three hundred fathoms. Over." To his astonishment a faint reply sounded in his earphones. "Trieste , this is Wandank. I hear you faint but clear. Understand six three zero zero fathoms. Roger. Out."
Before releasing quantities of the Trieste 's iron-shot ballast to lighten the craft and return it to the surface, the two men observed another example of life in the greatest depth of the sea when a red shrimp about an inch long swam before their plexiglass porthole.
The return to the surface took three hours and twenty-seven minutes, an hour and eleven minutes less than the descent. At 4:57 in the afternoon the Trieste 's "conning tower" broke the surface of the Pacific not far from the waiting Wandank and Lewis. Navy aircraft swooped low to salute the small submersible and its two crewmen on the successful completion of a voyage that pointed the way for men to range freely through all the depth and breadth of the world's oceans.
Strange And New Submersibles
Already other men in strange and new submersibles are following the lead of Walsh and Piccard, lured in part by the prospect of economic gain. The sea is a storehouse of natural treasures ranging from minerals to food. As population pressures increase, and as the treasures of the land become increasingly depleted, men are compelled to look to the sea for the foods and materials of life.
To meet the demands of deep submergence in this quest, scientists are investigating the capabilities of materials new to submarine construction. Aluminum is one of them. Because of aluminum's lightness it can be used to construct submarine hull sections thick enough to withstand great pressure and yet light enough to permit the craft to achieve buoyancy.
The first aluminum submarine, the Aluminaut, was launched on September 2, 1964, at Groton, Connecticut. Designed to operate at depths as great as 15,000 feet, the 50-foot craft is manned by a crew of three, and has a range of about a hundred miles at 3 to 4 knots. The aluminum of the seventy-five-ton submarine's hull is 6½ inches thick. The company which built the craft foresees a variety of uses for it, such as in search and salvage operations and in the mining of manganese nodules, which exist in a nearly pure state on some parts of the ocean's floor.
However, the Navy does not share the belief that aluminum is the best metal for the construction of deep-diving submarines. Its studies point to titanium, the hitherto little-used metal for which a variety of jet-age uses has been found. Titanium plates are being fabricated for use in the construction of a 16-foot research submarine to test the metal's capabilities.
Another material under test for possible use in submarine construction is glass. The Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, Maryland, has found that the ability of glass to withstand shock pressures — such as those caused by the explosion of depth charges — increases instead of decreases with depth. Glass's resistance to shock is five times as great at 21,000 feet as it is at the surface. Moreover, the transparency of glass would permit optical inspection for structural flaws and would offer wide-angle vision under water. Scientists are quick to say, though, that much development work must be done before any glass submarine ever goes to sea.
However, a submersible made of fiberglass is already in service. The research craft Alvin , 22 feet long, has descended to a depth of 6,000 feet in the sea off Andros Island in the Bahamas with two oceanographers aboard. The 11-ton craft has its own closed-circuit television system to facilitate observations. A mechanical arm, operated from inside the Alvin 's hull, can reach out and pick up objects of interest from the ocean floor and bring them to the surface for study. Though not capable of diving to the greatest depths, the Alvin is capable of much greater range and maneuverability than the Trieste , and its extensive use as a deep-diving research vessel is certain. It was the A Ivin which, at a depth of 2,500 feet in the Mediterranean Sea off Spain, located a hydrogen bomb from a wrecked U.S. Air Force bomber in March, 1966.
Plans for another type of deep-diving craft grew out of the Thresher tragedy. For rescue purposes, a naval group studying the tragedy has recommended the construction of six three-man submarines with exceptionally strong hulls for dives to depths as great as 6,000 feet. The 42-foot craft would be capable of fastening themselves to the escape hatches of disabled submarines for the purpose of removing the men inside, and could take them to the surface in groups of twelve to fourteen at a time. If and when such rescue submarines are built, they will take the place of the McCann rescue chamber, which is useful to a depth of 850 feet at most. Navy planners estimate that the small submarines could be delivered any place on four-fifths of the ocean surface of the world in twelve hours, carried part way by transport plane and part way by ship or full-size submarine.
Still other steps are being taken to open the depths of the sea for exploitation. The Navy has announced plans for a multimillion-dollar deep-submergence research complex to be established at Annapolis, Maryland. The heart of the complex will be chambers in which the tremendous pressures of the sea can be reproduced for experimental purposes. One system of three tanks will create the pressure that would exist if the sea were 56,000 feet deep — half again as deep as its greatest known depth.
Green Swamp Algae
In another area, Navy scientists have found that there may be an important use for common green swamp algae on submarines of the future. The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. has been experimenting with the phenomenal ability of algae to turn stale air fresh. Experiments have shown that the Sorokin strain of chlorella algae, taken originally from a Texas swamp in 1952, can double itself in five hours under artificial light aboard a submarine. In its growth process it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen — thus neatly providing for the respiratory needs of men at the same time that it disposes of their respiratory waste product.
The Navy's studies have shown that eighteen quarts of algae can supply the oxygen needs of the 130-man crew of a Polaris submarine. As a bonus, the algae can also rid the air of impurities caused by cigarette smoke, paint fumes, and cooking odors, and eliminate the need for mechancial "scrubbing" equipment now used on nuclear submarines. Before algae can actually be used to purify air on submarines, an economical light source to stimulate its growth must be developed.
Perhaps the most revolutionary idea currently under actual consideration in the field of underwater craft is a submersible that can fly. According to a six-month study conducted jointly by an aircraft company and a submarine manufacturer, the seaplane-submarine, or "sub-plane" as the Navy calls it, is entirely feasible.
As presently envisaged, it would be manned by two or three men and would have a range of 300 to 500 miles in the air at speeds perhaps as high as 250 miles an hour. It would be capable of landing on the water and of submerging by flooding its empty spaces. With its three flight engines sealed, it would dive as deep as 75 feet and navigate as a submarine for as far as 50 miles at speeds of up to 5 knots, powered by electric motors running on batteries. No firm plans to produce the 8-ton sub-plane have been announced, but high Navy officers are enthusiastic about its potentialities.
The possibilities of glass submarines, deep-diving rescue and salvage craft, and submarines that can fly give promise that the future of man's travel in the sea will be even more varied than the past. Up to now the development of submarines has depended largely on their value as actual or potential weapons of war. They will continue to have this value, but the years to come will see them increasingly employed for peaceful and gainful pursuits as man explores the mysteries and exploits the riches of the little-known depths of the seas.
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