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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Ship History: Deep Diver

Forty-nine years ago, when I was kid living on Guam on a drive down to the Navy base, I saw something unusual on one of the piers - an odd looking cylinder painted, as I recall, white and orange. My mother, used to Air Force secrecy as a SAC wife, told me it was some "Navy thing" and not to worry about it. Later the local paper reported what the cylinder was and why it was on Guam.

It was all pretty low key - low key then and low key now, but little noted on January 23 was an achievement that ought to be remembered along with the first climb to the highest point on earth, the breaking of the speed of sound, the first men sent up briefly into space - but perhaps you missed it, Jan 23 marked the 49th anniversary of the first men to dive to the deepest point of the ocean - the dive of the the Trieste to the bottom of the Challenger depth near Guam. As set out here:
The deep-diving research bathyscaphe Trieste was first launched in 1953 near Naples, Italy, by the Swiss scientist who designed her, Auguste Piccard. After several years of operations in the Mediterranean, she was purchased by the U.S. Navy and transported to San Diego, California. On October 2, 1959, Trieste was loaded onto the freighter Santa Maria for transport to the Mariana Islands for a series of deep-submergence operations in the Pacific Ocean, into the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean identified by the British ship Challenger II in 1851. The operations were code-named "Project Nekton."
More here:
The Navy's bathyscaph Trieste again set a world's diving record when she probed 37,800 feet to the depths of the Marianas Trench, deepest known hole in the world's oceans, Jan. 23.

Lt. Don Walsh of San Diego, Calif., and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard. . . made the descent. No difficulties were experienced during the dive, during which the Trieste was subjected to a pressure of 16, 883 pounds per square inch (more than a thousand times greater than the pressure at sea level).

This depth program has been named "Project Nekton" and, according to a Navy announcement, provides "scientific knowledge of sunlight penetration, underwater visibility, transmission of man-made sounds, and marine geological studies." The Trieste had previously made two record-setting dives, the last on Jan. 7 when she descended to 24,000 feet.

There was light outside the Trieste until about 800 feet, according to Lt. Walsh. At about 6000 feet, the chill from the water forced both men to don warmer clothing. The entire descent required 4 hours and 48 minutes. Once done, about 20 minutes was spent on the bottom making observations and recording data. Lights enabled the men to see living and moving objects. The return trip to the surface was made in 3 hours and 17 minutes.

ADM Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, sent congratulations to the two men. He termed their record-breaking feat an accomplishment that " may well mark the opening of a new age in exploration of the depths of the ocean which can well be as important as exploration in space has been in the past."
More on the dive:
On January 23, 1960 — the day of Trieste's historic dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the waves were 5 to 6 feet high in the ocean when Jacques Piccard (Auguste's son), and Navy Lt. Donald Walsh boarded Trieste from a rubber raft. They were housed in the white sphere at the bottom of the vessel. Reportedly, it was so packed with equipment that there was barely room for the men to sit in.


The Department of the Navy described Trieste as "the underwater equivalent of a lighter-than-air craft, much like a blimp operating in reverse. It consists of a 50-foot hull, 12 feet in diameter, filled with gasoline to make it buoyant, since gasoline is lighter than water. Beneath this hull is suspended a sphere 6.5 feet in diameter, which easily holds two men and scientific equipment."

Trieste had weights (9 tons of iron shot) to help it descend to the deepest point on the seafloor. The bathyscaphe's air tanks also were flooded with seawater to help make it sink. Trieste descended at a rate of 3 feet per second until it reached a depth of 27,000 feet, when its operators put on the brakes to slow its descent to half that rate.

The nearly 7-mile descent to the deepest known point on Earth took 4 hours and 48 minutes. Piccard and Walsh stayed on the bottom for 20 minutes, eating chocolate bars for sustenance, their teeth chattering in the 45°F cold cabin. Outside the bathyscaphe, the ocean temperature was 37.4°F. The mercury-vapor lamps on Trieste were the first to shine a light in this deep, dark place, illuminating a small, red shrimp-like creature and proving that the deep ocean had enough oxygen to support marine life.

At a depth of nearly 7 miles, the pressure is crushing, exceeding 16,883 pounds per square inch (more than a thousand times greater than the pressure at sea level). During the dive, an outer Plexiglas window cracked, which fortunately did not cause any problems other than some anxiety for the divers! They released two tons of iron shot to begin their ascent to the surface. The return trip took three hours and 17 minutes. When Piccard and Walsh surfaced, they officially entered the world record books.
And still more here:
The Trieste passed through many thermal layers. When it came to the dense cold layers, it stopped. "We sat on them like going down steps," said Lieut. Walsh. The crew had to release some of the buoyant gasoline in its upper hull before it resumed its dark, downward voyage.

Only contact with the surface was a telephone that transmitted their voices in sonar waves to a listening device on the mother ship. Part way down, it conked out, and the Trieste men drifted on down, utterly isolated from outside contact. Probably the mother ship had drifted sideways and the sonar waves were not strong enough to penetrate at an angle. When the bathyscaphe reached bottom, contact was re-established. From seven miles down, Walsh's voice reached the listeners, faint but clear.

At 30,000 ft. a sharp crack rang through the ship, shaking it violently. The water pressure outside was more than 6 tons per square inch., and even a slight fracture in the hull would have meant certain death. It proved to be only an outer Plexiglas windowpane which had splintered under the pressure. The inner hull remained watertight. "A pretty hairy, experience," admitted Walsh.

When the Trieste finally settled on the bottom, it raised clouds of fine white silt. Dr. Andreas B. Rechnitzer, the scientist in charge of the dive, identified the "dust" as diatomaceous ooze, the silica skeletons of small sea creatures, often used as scouring powder. In effect, the Trieste landed in a cloud of Bab-O.

Clearly visible when the dust settled was a white flatfish about one foot long. It seemed healthy and it had eyes, although the nearest trace of sunlight was more than seven miles overhead. Swimming six feet above the bottom were a shrimp and a jellyfish, neither of them bothered by the enormous pressure on their bodies. The very fact that these creatures were living and healthy proved that the water had oxygen in it. Therefore it must circulate, because if it were stagnant in the trench, its oxygen would long since have disappeared. One immediate conclusion: ocean trenches are not safe places for dumping radioactive wastes, since their water does not stay put.
The Trieste stayed on the bottom for 30 minutes, but Piccard and Walsh could use its powerful lights for only short periods because the heat they generate made the water around them boil violently. In later dives the Trieste will carry more instruments, take more pictures, and collect water and living creatures from the depths. Says Dr. Rechnitzer: "We'll go up and down like a Yo-yo."
As noted above, a great deal of credit for the dive goes to Dr. Andy Rechnitzer:
After receiving his doctorate at Scripps, Dr. Rechnitzer joined the Naval Electronics Laboratory (NEL) (which became the Naval Ocean Systems Center) in San Diego. He was the Deep Submergence Research Program Coordinator and Oceanographer.

While at NEL, Dr. Rechnitzer recognized the tremendous research potential of the bathyscaph Trieste. The Trieste was built in Italy by Swiss Professor Auguste Piccard and his son, Jacques Piccard. The Office of Naval Research put together a rather distinguished team of specialists to travel to Italy to evaluate the Trieste. Dr. Rechnitzer was one of those marine scientists. He studied the theory, engineering and maintenance procedures of Trieste. Dr. Rechnitzer and other U.S. scientists made several deep dives in the Trieste in the Mediterranean Sea. He saw the many advantages of scientists and engineers diving in the bathyscaph to further their individual research specialties.

Dr. Rechnitzer was instrumental in proposing that the U.S. Navy buy the Trieste. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) agreed and bought the bathyscaph for $250,000. The Office of Naval Research assigned the Trieste to NEL for operations.

ONR appointed Dr. Rechnitzer to be Technical Director and Scientist-in-Charge of Trieste in 1958. The Navy immediately established Project Nekton to modify Trieste and make a series of deeper dives in Trieste. Led by Dr. Rechnitzer’s vision, the Project Nekton Team conducted a wide range of ocean science studies that were of strong interest to the U.S. Navy. There were many questions to be answered about what happens deep under the ocean and how that affects submarines and surface ships.

Dr. Rechnitzer assembled a very dynamic, progressive small team of 16 specialists. These were unique individuals, because they all had two or three specialties and they worked very well together as a team. The Project Nekton Team included Lt. Don Walsh (Officer-in-Charge and Pilot), Lt. Larry Shumaker (Assistant Officer-in-Charge, Pilot and Chief Engineer) and Master Chief John Michel (Crew Chief). Jacques Piccard, the son of the inventor, was hired as Technical Advisor on Trieste.

Following a series of dives off San Diego, the Trieste was modified and shipped to Guam for even deeper dives.

As head of the Trieste Team, Dr. Rechnitzer made many dives in the Trieste, down to depths of 18,150 feet (a world record dive at the time).

Dr. Rechnitzer was the Scientist-In-Charge and Technical Director when the Trieste made her historic world record dive to 35,800 feet off Guam on January 23, 1960. The water pressure was 15,931 pounds per square inch. We have a little less that 15 psi on the surface of the ocean.

Pilot of the Trieste on this deep dive was Lt. Don Walsh (later Capt. and Ph.D.). Jacques Piccard was the Technical Advisor aboard the Trieste during the deep dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Lt. Larry Shumaker was topside, providing engineering services and acting as Operations Officer for the dive. Master Chief John Michel did some ingenious last minute engineering and machine work to make Trieste ready for the deepest dive.

The entire Project Nekton budget was a little less than $250,000. That meant that the purchase and operations of Trieste through the deep dive was done on a modest combined budget of $500,000.

For their contributions to the advancement of deep ocean research, Dr. Rechnitzer, Jacques Piccard, Lt. Walsh and Lt. Shumaker were honored personally by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a White House ceremony. Dr. Rechnitzer was recognized by President Eisenhower for his leadership as Technical Director and Scientist-in-Charge of Project Nekton. President Eisenhower presented Dr. Rechnitzer with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award.
The dive support ship was USS Wandank (ATA-204), a small ocean going tug:
In January 1960, for example, she served as communication relay and support ship for the bathyscaphe Trieste in Project Nekton; she towed the bathyscaphe some 260 nautical miles (482 kilometers) from Guam to the vicinity of the Challenger Deep, where, on 23 January 1960, Trieste descended to 37,000 feet (11,278 meters).

In addition to Wandank, the destroyer escort USS Lewis (De-535) provided support for the dive. She can be seen in the background of the photo above which was taken right before the dive.

Trieste was later used to locate the lost submarine Thresher.

A record that can never be broken is pretty cheap at $500,000. The value of the experience and the bravery of the crew, though, priceless.

And I remember it was a day like any other on Guam, except...


UPDATE: According to this wonderful NASA site, Trieste can be found at the Navy History Museum at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.

Click on the pictures to make them bigger.

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