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The Other Frontier: Are We Losing the Race to the Bottom?

BRAVO to the Russian scientists who breached Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica, which is over 2 miles below the surface. This is quite a feat of engineering that experts say would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. And yet the real significance may lie in what the scientists hope to discover — life forms that can survive under some of the harshest conditions on Earth. 

This achievement also brings to mind the untapped potential of the U.S. Navy’s Sealab project that sought to explore and ultimately conquer the hostile undersea frontier that is wonderfully documented in a new book by Ben Hellwarth called Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor

Hellwarth tells the story of men like George Bond and other “wet NASA” daredevils who planned and carried out experiments with the belief that “the very survival of the human species depended on our ability to take up residence on the seabed” and return to our primeval roots. The starting point was to answer these questions: “How long can a man stay down?” “How deep can a man go?” 

Hellwarth explains that these questions were never fully answered and Jules Verne-like fantasies of mobile undersea habitats were never realized for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the government was “unwilling to take the same risks underwater that it did in space.” Despite some heroic efforts, market pressures ultimately kept private industry out of the game in the long run. And yet, we are still reaping the rewards of Sealab’s successes today as deep-sea diving has been revolutionized and Sealab’s pioneering methods have been put into practice by divers on commercial oil rigs. 

What will it take to reignite innovation in this field? For one thing, Hellwarth writes, “the gospel of living in the sea could still use some preachers.”


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