Diving Deep

By William J. Broad

"I do not believe so," Piccard replied.

Wondering if one of the lights had imploded from the great pressure, Piccard flipped a switch. Nothing happened. Despite that clue, he was still uneasy. Finally, the sea floor came into view. It was a wilderness of light-colored ooze. More important, the bottom of the world turned out to shelter life, and not just swarms of tiny invertebrates. A foot-long flatfish that resembled a sole lay in the muck. Amazingly, given the dark habitat, it had eyes. Slowly, extremely slowly, the fish rose and swam out of the spotlight back into perpetual night. A red shrimp flitted by. Examining the ooze through his tiny window, Piccard noticed a number of undulations on the bottom suggestive of animal tracks. Unfortunately, during the dive he was unable to photograph animals, allowing skeptics to dismiss them later as deep hallucinations. After 20 minutes of observations, the allotted time was up. The two began a long ascent. Upon breaking the surface, they climbed out quickly, eager for fresh air. Two Navy jets screamed overhead out of nowhere, dipping their wings in salute, startling the explorers. 3

The fighting Navy, in spite of the advances and insights, was ambivalent about exploring the deep. Such work was seen as appropriate for limited experimentation and analysis but was no candidate for real money. Instead, the Navy during this period devoted itself to amassing jets, warships, and submarines, to procuring more powerful nuclear bombs for the arms race with Moscow. Deep achievements with no clear military aim were seen as a potential distraction from the real work at hand. So it was that the Trieste 's thicker sphere was retired in 1961. After the fact, Navy analysts decided that it was incapable of safely withstanding the pressures at the bottom of the trench. No replacement was built.

The growing corps of Navy deep explorers was furious. The pilots and scientists of the bathyscaph lobbied for more Trieste dives and for a totally new vehicle that was smaller and more maneuverable and that had bigger windows.... The head of the Deep Submergence Program at the bathyscaph's San Diego base, Andreas B. Rechnitzer, a witness to the deep avalanche off Capri, began talks with a potential builder of a new submersible, but he was quickly shot down. "The Navy said it was not in our mission to go deep," he recalled. His ire was directed particularly at Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of America's nuclear Navy. "Rickover said anything deeper than 2,500 feet was a waste of money. I was fed up." Rechnitzer quit the Navy and went into private industry, sure that one way or another a new age was about to dawn. 4

The fight within the Navy slowly intensified as officials split for and against the new field. One expert in Washington who was convinced that the military had a deep calling was Charles B. "Swede" Momsen, Jr., Chief of Undersea Warfare at the Office of Naval Research. Momsen argued that a deep submersible, if nothing else, could help the Navy install its global arrays of underwater microphones, noting that new ones were about to be strung around Bermuda in water more than a mile deep. Most important, he took action....

An important ally in Momsen's fight was Allyn C. Vine, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, who had long argued, contrary to most oceanographers, that people, not probes, were the best way to fathom the deep. Woods Hole would be in charge of the new Navy sub, which in Al Vine's honor was to be named Alvin . Woods Hole was chosen as its home because no other marine lab in the country wanted it. There was just one problem with all this planning—how to get the sub built… 5 In 1963, the Minneapolis company General Mills, maker of such breakfast cereals as Cheerios and Wheaties, began to assemble the one-of-a-kind submersible in the same room where it built the machines used to grind out breakfast flakes…

The American Navy's love-hate relationship with deep exploration lasted half a decade, from the day it bought the bathyscaph. Then a crisis changed everything....

The USS Thresher (SSN-593), was the nation's most advanced submarine, the best war machine that American money could buy and that Yankee ingenuity could build. Nonetheless, on 10 April 1963, while conducting test dives off Nova Scotia, the sub inexplicably sank, her 129 men lost to icy waters more than a mile and a half deep. It was peacetime's worst submarine disaster....

Beyond the human tragedy, the incident was a political blow to the United States. The loss of America's most advanced sub was seen as a major setback in the Cold War against communism, in the global effort to project strength and promote alliances opposed to the socialist threat.

Named after a tough species of shark, the Thresher had been the ultimate attack submarine, the first of a new breed that would target Moscow's growing fleet of ships and submarines, including those based in Cuba. The Navy wanted 24 attack subs just like the Thresher . Her special skill, which in time became the general goal of all American subs, was stealth, not speed. Powered by a single nuclear reactor, she had an array of ingenious silencing methodologies that dramatically cut the usual din of turbines, pumps, and gears that made other submarines sound like locomotives. She was a sound laboratory. As important, her thick hull meant she could dive deeper than any previous American submarine, greatly increasing her ability to hide and fight back.

The exact operating depths of submarines are always secret, but in hindsight we know the historical trend. Subs in World War II routinely went down to about 400 feet. After the war they went perhaps to 800 feet. The Thresher was said to be rated for 1,300 feet, a very deep figure for the day. An important job of attack subs such as the Thresher was to protect America's growing fleet of submarines that carried Polaris missiles. These had fundamentally altered the geopolitical calculi, allowing the basing of long-range missiles to be moved from land to sea, making them nearly invisible to the enemy yet close to his shores, expanding the number of targets. Polaris warheads were fast becoming the cornerstone of Western efforts to frighten the communists and deter aggression. The Thresher 's powers of quietude and deep submersion were slated to be adopted not only by the nation's attack submarines but by the missile-carrying ones as well. In short, the Thresher was meant to inaugurate a new level of deadliness for the nation's arsenal. 6

Like a rock thrown into a tranquil pond, the sinking of the nation's premier submarine sent out ever-widening shock waves. The Navy was alarmed as years of planning were thrown into disarray and the rationale for its submarine buildup was eroded. Morale went into free-fall. Resignations from the fleet rose and the recruiting of new submariners became difficult if not impossible, as fears swirled of accidental death in the deep. Exploiting the propaganda opening, the Soviets charged that the sunken reactor was sure to poison the north Atlantic. Some allies grew distant. Worst of all, no one was sure why the Thresher had gone down. Her last messages to an escort ship had been garbled, something about attempting to come up from test depths. The last thing heard over the hydrophones of the escort ship was the thud of collapsing compartments. An investigation found no evidence of sabotage or enemy action, and came up with possible causes of the accident. But ultimately, whatever sank the Thresher was a mystery… 7

The Navy did the logical thing. It sent for the decade-old Trieste , the only manned vessel it owned that could plumb such depths. The bathyscaph, now equipped with a robot arm, was far from ideal for the hunt. At best, her three small propellers could nudge the behemoth across the bottom at a molasses-like crawl, and its tiny windows were a major frustration to observers.

Indeed, five Trieste dives in June found nothing of significance a mile and a half down. Floodlights swept the dark bottom to reveal only endless muck and occasional sea stars, sea anemones, and worm holes. In late August, the Trieste returned to the site for another round of searching. The Navy's degree of desperation was highlighted by the fact that preparations for the new series of dives included dropping 1,441 numbered plastic signs at regular intervals across the seabed to try to help the bathyscaph keep track of her position.

On the third dive, nearly five months after the disaster, the Trieste found the remnants of the Thresher on the ocean floor. It was a mess. The intense pressure of the deep sea had shattered the 278-foot-long submarine in a violent implosion that left her shredded over the sea floor. Enormous hunks of twisted metal were interspersed with jumbles of smaller debris, including battery plates, lead ballast, and tattered cables. Already living amid the torn hulks of the sub's superstructure were sea urchins and sinuous fish several feet long. The Trieste roamed the wreckage. On one of the many dives to the site, Lieutenant Commander Donald L. Keach of the Navy took control of the bathyscaph's robot arm. It resembled a human arm—with a hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint, each controlled by a separate electric motor. After much trial and error, including repeated freezing of the arm in arthritic immobility, Keach succeeded in grabbing a four-foot section of twisted pipe and returning with it to the surface. The disaster site, he later told reporters, "is like an automobile junkyard." 8

Within days of the Thresher 's loss, even before the embarrassment of the long hunt, the Navy began a round of soul-searching about its virtual inability to do serious work in deep waters and its general ignorance about the oceanic depths. Somehow, the orders went, this folly had to be corrected so such disasters would be less devastating in the future. The Thresher was the Pearl Harbor of the deep and, as with the destruction of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, the Navy vowed to do everything in its power to avoid a similar crisis in the future.

Two weeks after the sinking, the Navy Secretary, Fred H. Korth, appointed a panel of 58 people to review all the Navy's deep-sea capabilities and suggest improvements. Known as the Deep Submergence Systems Review Group, it was led by Rear Admiral Edward C. Stephan, the Navy's Oceanographer and a veteran submariner. Among its members was Al Vine of Woods Hole.

The Stephan panel was slow and meticulous. Its deliberations took almost a year, but its top-secret report, issued in March 1964, was a virtual encyclopedia of what the Navy had and lacked by way of deep equipment and philosophies. The panel called for a spectrum of improvements, including a major effort to improve the Navy's ability to recover personnel from sunken subs, to investigate the ocean floor, to recover small objects, and to salvage submarines. Its advice was read and heeded, despite the tumult caused by the assassination of President Kennedy a few months earlier. The new Navy Secretary, Paul H. Nitze, hailed the Stephan report in a speech and predicted that the Thresher tragedy would become a turning point "in our quest for knowledge and mastery of the undersea world." 9

In June 1964, the tiny submersible Alvin , about which the Navy had originally been so ambivalent, was christened at Woods Hole on Cape Cod before an audience packed with attentive Navy personnel in their best dress uniforms. The tiny white sub, about the size of a bread truck, looked more like a toy than a key military vehicle. It nonetheless was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting. an outcast no longer. "Everybody was there," recalled John Cooper, a Woods Hole scientist. "It was as if they were commissioning the battleship Missouri ." Reflecting the new importance acceded to matters of deep exploration, the main speech was given by James H. Wakelin, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development. Also present was Swede Momsen, the naval expert who almost single-handedly brought the Alvin to life. Before climbing the rostrum, Momsen turned to Wakelin and asked, with a grin, whether the audience should be told that the Assistant Secretary had once tried to kill the project. 10

That same month, Wakelin took to the pages of National Geographic to reassure the American public that the Navy was learning from the tragedy and was committed to mastering the deep. " Thresher left behind her the realization that we are ignorant, a condition once described by Benjamin Disraeli as a great step to knowledge," Wakelin wrote. "We are trying to build on this realization to become more knowledgeable." 11

What followed during the next decade was a rush of deep-sea planning, research, and construction, initially driven by nothing more substantial than the Navy's new attitude. The nation making conspicuous plans to send men to the Moon in response to President Kennedy's 1961 call was now, in 1963 and 1964, under the new administration of President [Lyndon B.] Johnson, gearing up to go as boldly as possible in the opposite direction as well, probing the hidden recesses of inner space, often with eerie, crablike machines easily mistaken for monsters. The total cost of the endeavor eventually ran to untold billions of dollars. Moreover, the Navy's investments were amplified as private industry poured money into the perfection of undersea gear in anticipation of big federal contracts related to the conquest of inner space.

No longer was the cutting edge of deep exploration under the control of royalty and philanthropists and quirky committees. The richest and most powerful nation on Earth had decided to make the field its own. Its attitude was very different from forerunners' in that it had little or no interest in the traditional goals of deep research, in exploring for its own sake, in laying undersea cables, in searching for orthocones and trilobites, in admiring angler fish and other yonders. Its aims, by contrast, were military. It was fighting a war it intended to win. In short, the new patron was not only wealthy; it was driven.

1 The Office of Naval Research in 1958 bought the Trieste and all its accessories from the Piccards, with Jacques agreeing to stay on as a consultant. Wanting to dive deeper and press the art's limits, the Navy immediately ordered the fabrication of a new sphere that was even stronger and stouter, its walls five inches thick, up from three-and-a-half inches. And the craft's windows got smaller, narrowing from four inches at the inner wall to just over two inches.

2 The Challenger Deep, named after the famous ship, is deepest of all known deeps. Located in the Marianas Trench near the Mariana chain of islands, it stretches down beneath the waves for a distance of nearly seven miles.

3 Jacques Piccard and Robert S. Dietz, Seven Miles Down: The Story of the Bathyscaph Trieste (New York: Putnam, 1961), pp. 160-180.

4 Don Walsh, "Looking Backwards at the Future," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1985, pp. 103-104. Walsh, "Thirty Thousand Feet and Thirty Years Later: Some Thoughts on the Deepest Presence Concept," Marine Technology Society Journal, June 1990, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 7-8. For Rechnitzer quote, see Victoria A. Kaharl, Water Baby: The Story of Alvin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 15. It should be noted that the fighting Navy was interested in oceanography in general, and dramatically stepped up its funding of the field in the years immediately after World War II. See H. W. Menard, The Ocean of Truth: A Personal History of Global Tectonics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 37-43.

5 Kaharl, Water Baby, pp. 15-48.

6 Norman Polmar, Death of the Thresher (New York: Chilton, 1964), pp. 1-5. Robert W. Love, Jr., History of the U.S. Navy, Volume Two, 1942-1991 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992), pp. 416, 480-481. The New York Times Index (New York: The New York Times, 1963), pp. 707-708. Tom Clancy, Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship (New York: Berkley, 1993), pp. 17-19. For silencing and submarine depths, see Patrick Tyler, Running Critical (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 57-58. On the link between the Thresher and missile subs, interview, John P. Craven, formerly chief scientist for the Navy's Polaris program, 2 July 1993.

7 Polmar, Death, pp. 35-36, 55, 89.

8 Ibid., pp. 60-61, 91, 141. James H. Wakelin, Jr., "Thresher: Lesson and Challenge," National Geographic, June 1964, pp. 759-763. For the mistaken photo, see "Back to the Hunt," Newsweek, 10 June 1963, pp. 31-32. Donald L. Keach, "Down to Thresher by Bathyscaph," National Geographic, June 1964, pp. 764-777.

9 Polmar, Death, p. 125. For a general description of the Stephan panel, also see Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover: Controversy and Genius (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), p. 435, and for details of its work, see Edwin A. Link, "Tomorrow on the Deep Frontier," National Geographic, June 1964, pp. 778-801. Paul H. Nitze, "Harnessing the Ocean Depths," Vital Speeches, I October 1964, pp. 749-751.

10 Kaharl, Water Baby, pp. 45-48.

11 Wakelin, "Thresher: Lesson and Challenge," p. 763.

Mr. Broad writes about science for The New York Times and has twice won Pulitzer Prizes with his colleagues there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The "spit-and-polish submariner" to whom Mr. Broad refers here—Don Walsh—is the author of a new upcoming column, "Oceans," to be published bimonthly in Proceedings .

 

 
 

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