A few months before the moon landing in 1969, Sealab III—an elaborate, 300-ton, expanded version of Sealab II—looked as though it might be the undersea counterpart of the moon shot. The lab was lowered to more than 600 feet off the coast of Southern California, a remarkable dive depth even today. Several dozen aquanauts were going to take turns living in the lab, with a variety of military and marine science projects on the agenda, including exploratory saturation dives from the lab down to 1,000 feet.
This might have been a true turning point for manned undersea exploration, the project that finally secured a needed foothold in the national zeitgeist. Jacques Cousteau’s son Philippe was lined up to film the mission.
But just as Sealab III was getting under way, a tragic confluence of human error and technical difficulties—including some malfunctioning breathing gear—led to the death of an aquanaut who had taken part in the successful Sealab II missions. After an investigation, the Navy canceled the program. The Sealab crew—Navy divers and marine scientists alike—found this utterly perplexing. Three astronauts had died in a launch pad fire inside the Apollo 1 capsule two years earlier and that didn’t spell the end of the space program. Imagine the national uproar if NASA had announced that it was abandoning the moon mission. But Sealab’s demise was unceremonious, with scarcely a peep on TV or a headline in the newspapers—another measure of how manned undersea exploration still hadn’t caught on, its low profile partly a function of low budgets.
After Sealab, in the 1970s, there actually was talk about creating a “wet NASA”—an independent civilian agency like NASA, but funded to pursue manned and other undersea activities. The idea gained credence in 1969 with the publication of “Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action,” a gung-ho report from President Lyndon Johnson’s blue-ribbon commission on ocean issues. But responsibility for undersea missions was instead put under the Commerce Department and the wide umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was formed in 1970 from a smorgasbord of government agencies and departments.
In the early 1980s, as the space shuttle program was taking off, the United States considered reviving the Sealab concept in the form of a mobile habitat to be called Oceanlab, which was designed to roam inner space like Jules Verne’s mythical Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Oceanlab would be capable of reaching depths up to 1,000 feet and equipped to release saturation divers wherever they wanted to explore. As you have no doubt guessed, the Oceanlab plans were shelved, but it’s interesting to imagine what Oceanlab, a kind of marine version of a space shuttle, might have done for the cause of manned undersea exploration—not to mention the multiple habitats, both fixed and mobile, that Johnson’s commission had recommended.
A number of countries came up with Sealab-style prototypes, as did a few eager entrepreneurs, sometimes with public funding. These efforts included Hydrolab, a little habitat with room for three or four aquanauts. NOAA bought Hydrolab in the 1970s, and it would go on to house several hundred scientist-aquanauts over the course of many missions in the waters off Bermuda and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But these private groups—including the team of Jacques Cousteau, who was as great a pitchman and fundraiser as anyone—would find sea dwelling and exploration a tough business to pursue, especially without a government-primed infrastructure and market like the one that evolved for space travel. The situation was something like tech mogul Elon Musk trying to launch SpaceX without the benefit of a space station or the many trails NASA blazed with its billions.
In the mid-1980s, NOAA did have Aquarius built as a replacement for Hydrolab. While Aquarius was considerably larger and a more state-of-the-art habitat, its annual operating budget remained paltry, usually between $1 million and $3 million. By the time NOAA proposed closing the base last year, the agency was already putting a lot more of its resources into robotic approaches to undersea exploration, making it even less likely that people will boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.
Still, not everyone has given up on the idea. The renowned French architect Jacques Rougerie has for a decade been leading a consortium in the development of SeaOrbiter, a vessel resembling an aquatic cousin of the Starship Enterprise. I’ve been told the project is coming along and that its unusual design—vertically oriented, like a buoy, to float at the surface and drift with the currents—includes the necessary setups for saturation divers. And coming this November, Fabien Cousteau, the eldest grandson of Jacques Cousteau, plans to begin “Mission 31,” during which he and half a dozen others will live at the Aquarius Reef Base for an attention-getting 31 days. They’ll be commemorating the 50th anniversary of Fabien’s late grandfather’s experimental habitats in the Red Sea—those structures became the setting of a picture-laden book, World Without Sun, and an Oscar-winning documentary of the same name.
In many ways “Mission 31” will be like a sequel to last year’s Aquarius mission, which helped save the base by showcasing its role in studying marine life and the exploratory advantages—and the thrill!—of being an aquanaut. I suppose if anyone can jump-start the sputtering age of manned undersea exploration, a Cousteau armed with IMAX and live-streaming cameras can. But if history is any guide, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
More from Slate’s series on the future of exploration: Is the ocean the real final frontier? Why are the best meteorites found in Antarctica? Can humans reproduce on interstellar journeys? Why are we still looking for Atlantis? Why do we celebrate the discovery of new species but keep destroying their homes? Who will win the race to claim the melting Arctic—conservationists or profiteers? Why don’t travelers ditch Yelp and Google in favor of wandering? What can exploring Google’s Ngram Viewer teach us about history? How did a 1961 conference jump-start the serious search for extraterrestrial life? Why are liminal spaces—where urban areas meet nature—so beautiful?
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.