Anyone who has ever watched Star Trek has heard the narration proclaiming outer space to be the "Final Frontier." It might be a great sound bite for the times but even while astronauts were circling the planet and landing on the moon and as the famous "space race" with the Russians was in full throttle there was another frontier waiting to be explored. This was Earth's inner space, otherwise known as our oceans. Ben Hellwarth's new book "Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest To Live And Work On The Ocean Floor" is the compelling true story of America's attempt at dominion over the seas.
In the early 1960s, Navy Doctor George Bond authored a proposal to explore and make a presence on the ocean floor. He felt it would not only be beneficial to the Navy in terms of military and rescue acumen but there would also be spin-offs into civilian life, much like the ongoing space program led to Teflon and Tang, as well as "endeavors such as mineral mining, marine biology, and marine archaeology" (although it would be oil drilling that would be the greatest beneficiary). As the author says about Dr. Bond, he "believed that undersea exploration would bring the next generation of antibiotics, and that massive supplies of fresh water that boiled up from the continental shelf could be tapped. He believed, too, that the very survival of the human species depended on our ability to take up residence on the seabed and learn to harvest the ocean's edible protein."
Even though the concept of living on the ocean floor goes at least as far back as Jules Verne, Dr. Bonds' "Proposal for Underwater Research" with his exploration and exploitation ideas was rejected by the Navy. A former country doctor used to working on his own, Dr. Bond ignored the official rejection and began sub rosa experiments on the ability of animals (and ultimately man) to adapt to and work in the increased pressure under the ocean, recruiting a small team of like-minded scientists and divers. "Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest To Live And Work On The Ocean Floor" is the story of how Dr. Bond and his ever-changing cast of co-workers went from humble, unapproved experiments - often paid for out of their own pockets - to an always underfunded, often jury-rigged, project which ultimately would change the world while not necessarily turning out the way it's principals imagined.
And it's a great story and a wonderful read. There are heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, lives, deaths and near-deaths, joy and sorrow, blame and fault-finding, fascinating characters including a former astronaut, surprising outcomes with a dose of international espionage to boot.
Chock-full of facts from government documents (though certain details of the project remain classified) and drawn from author Hellwarth's personal interviews with many of the remaining living individuals involved in the Sealab projects, "Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest To Live And Work On The Ocean Floor" is an incredibly detailed history, crisply written and abundantly footnoted. The writer makes all the arcane details (and there are many) understandable and gives the reader the feeling of being present as the events occur, a major success for Mr. Hellwarth. It also made me wonder about not only how different our understanding of the effects and extent of climate change might have been had the Sealab program had not been discontinued but also whether America should once again take on this challenge of living and working on the seafloor. The benefits haven't changed but a half century's worth of technological improvements have occurred that could make the further exploration of the ocean a wise investment in the Earth's future.
Fascinating and exceptionally readable, Ben Hellwarth's "Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest To Live And Work On The Ocean Floor" is well worth your time and effort.