The author spent more than 30 days living and working in three undersea
habitats from 1993 through 1998. He acted as the mission commander
for ten NASA undersea missions. In 1997 and 1998, he designed,
built and successfully launched the Scott Carpenter Space Analog
Station, one of only four undersea habitats in operation.)
morning typically began just before sunrise. The typical aquanaut
personality is generally regimented and disciplined. Therefore,
just before retiring the evening before, I had a very long discussion
by radio with mission control. As a part of that discussion,
wake up time was decided between us. But it never varied – I
wanted my habitat fully powered - lights on and functional at 7:00
AM each morning. Our missions typically lasted for many days,
but each day was precious and there was not time to waste taking our
my own biological clock is also disciplined. I sat my brain
to awaken me half an hour prior to the punctual call from mission
control, because I wanted to enjoy the sunrise beneath the surface.
in a habitat is a marvelous affair. The life support machinery
all around generates not only sounds of their own but a very gentle
vibration as well. It is much like sleeping in a womb, wrapped
in steel and lulled to sleep by the life giving machines that hover
all around, just out of sight. In the three habitats I have
had the privilege of sleeping in, they were all pressurized to depth.
Therefore in the habitats I slept in, the air pressure was right at
the decompression limit – 21 FSW - feet of sea water.
is something extraordinary about living and working and sleeping under
pressure. We had our air pumped down to us, so at 21 FSW the
partial pressure of oxygen was elevated to one and two thirds the
amount of oxygen available at the surface. Not only did wounds
heal faster but sleep under pressure was deep and sweet.
of the past experiences of many habitat builders in the past, one
of the first lessons learned was that humidity control was absolutely
essential to living and working beneath the sea. Hence, the habitat
featured an air conditions which doubled as a humidity controller.
Sleeping in these conditions meant that the air was cool and the air
was dry – also the perfect sleeping environment.
so it was that half an hour before the first call from Mission Control,
I forced my eyes open for the first time. The very first thing
I looked at was demanded from the discipline of a mission commander.
I looked to my right at the wall mounted instrument cluster glowing
a light green in the darkness. Oxygen level, carbon dioxide
level, air flow, power status, temperature of the cabin, outside and
the heat exchanger pool – all of these numbers told me instantly how
the mission was going. If any of them ever went out of design
limits, our time would be limited. Fortunately, in all my missions,
there were few problems. I and my crew was blessed by the grace
of God and by good design and engineering.
soon as I determined that station was operating within limits – which
required far less time than it took for you to read this, my eyes
shifted to the large windows before me open to the outside.
What had been a black void just moments before, was now discernibly
beginning to brighten before my eyes.
undersea world is an alien landscape – or seascape – since it is in
three dimensions. When the aquanaut looks outside his windows,
he sees a world in which he has complete access to in all dimensions.
Compare that to the land dweller. When he looks outside, he
sees a world in which he is strictly limited to where his foot may
trod. For instance, he may see the top of the telephone pole,
but he knows he cannot easily see what lies atop it. The aquanaut,
on the other hand, may leave his dwelling and go to the top of the
pole and look it over – or he may gently glide down its length and
look it over in detail. He has no strictly confining spatial
when the aquanaut looks outside, he does not see a world like the
land dweller sees at all. Even sunrise mornings are different.
Here, the world lightens in muted and slow degrees. – it becomes obvious
from the first sunrise beneath the ocean that it is not the same.
The light takes its time here. There are no distinct shadows
here – only shades of brightness. As I reclined in my chair,
I wrapped my blankets around me and relaxed. The undersea world
all around me was peaceful and awakening slowly, and so would I.
tiny fish that darted about and made a game of swimming though our
bubble trails at night were totally gone now. There was no movement
outside the window at all, save the bubbles. The grays were
dominating the void and at first, it looked like a gentle fog had
settled in outside.
soon it began to give way to a brighter shade of gray. Soon
I could make out the edges of my station as they appeared out of the
dim void. The only land side experience I can relate it to was
morning spent on La Jolla beach in southern California. I would
go there and lie on a blanket on the beach on a Sunday morning early
just to watch the fog burn off the coast. Sunrise beneath the
sea is much like that – it is slow, it is gentle and it takes its
the time I was about to drift off to sleep again, the call from mission
control would invariably come.
to station, control to station, good morning!”
soon as I read back our systems instrument cluster data to the controller,
I would look over to my fellow aquanaut and ensure they were awake
and sitting upright. Then I turned on all the lights in the
habitat at once to enforce the beginning of the day. Falling
back to sleep in a habitat is surprisingly easy. Then I would
stand up, stretch and head back to the wet room for my morning “rituals”.
AUTHOR RETURNS FROM A MORNING OUTSIDE THE HABITAT
wet room is another lesson learned from past habitats. It is
an attached room to the main habitat cabin, but it features a closeable,
non-pressure and non-watertight door. The wet room door is a
humidity barrier that prevents ensures the main cabin is always dry.
Here in the wet room is a toilet, a shower and an open door to the
sea called the ‘moon pool’. The three habitats that I have lived
in were fully open to the ocean and the air pressure inside matched
that of the ocean at the depth of the moon-pool – or access way outside
into the ocean. The water level (see photo) rose to the inside
chamber’s edge, and the water was kept out by the inside air pressure.
about turning a glass of water upside down and pushing it under the
surface of a swimming pool. The water does not fill the glass,
but it stops rising in the glass when the pressure of the water matches
the pressure of the air bubble inside the glass.
frequently joked that in my station, the opening to the swimming pool
was small but the pool itself was as large as the Atlantic Ocean!
I would open the door to the main cabin and ask my crewmember to call
up to mission control and let them know that I was going on a brief
excursion before breakfast. I would simply pop the regulator
attached to a long hose (that was attached to a big air tank outside),
put on my mask, flippers and on which I locked my bail-out bottle
and simply drop into the pool. In just two seconds I was floating
free of the habitat.
mornings in the ocean are wonderful! I have a personal habit
of morning devotionals and often I would have them here, floating
in the deep void around my habitat. I loved settling to the
bottom and sitting silently, breathing slowly and watching curious
fish gather around me. Often, I would pluck off a barnacle or
two from a nearby submerged object and break it up for them.
Then it was my habit to swim vigorously around the habitat few times
to stretch my legs and to crank up my breathing. I would then
swim around the station slowly to ensure the station was intact and
not having any kind of issues. Finally, I would wipe the windows
clear of the silt that settled on them at night before coming in for
a shower and breakfast.
the moon pool was a relatively easy affair. Once one’s head
is inside, we clipped our regulators and hoses removed our mask then
pulled ourselves up inside by a conveniently installed handle on the
opposite wall. Once there, the fins came off next and then the
clothes came off for a fresh water shower.
in the station was typically dry cereal and milk with canned fruit.
Following breakfast, there was a conference call with mission control
to review the plan for the day.
in a habitat is a tight affair. Habitats tend to be small and
crowded. So keeping a disciplined station is more than just
important – it is an absolute necessity. As they used to say
in the Navy, ‘everything has its place – everything in its place.’
That is not only true for reasons of convenience but for safety as
well. If the emergency ever comes, seconds and perfect order
will mean the difference between life and death.
JAMES CAMERON AND AUTHOR IN A CLASSROOM LINK
daily work schedule of a habitat is widely varied, depending on what
the mission is for. Much of our Work in the SCSAS was divided
between some space life support systems investigations and outreach
all over the world. On a typical day, we would connect by telephone
or satellite phone to a classroom and conduct an hour of instruction
that, we would typically have invited guests (one at a time) to visit
us, for interviews or just to look around. Finally, at the end
of the morning, our lunch break would come and it would be time to
fix the first hot meal of the day.
are delivered and trash is picked up daily from the habitat.
Underwater deliveries are made in watertight boxes with a pressure
relief valve. They look much like a suitcase. Further,
there are several sized of these from a small lunch-box size to a
full suitcase size. On the surface, the aquanaut assigned to
the delivery duty fills the case with food or supplies, each double
wrapped in plastic bags. The lid is closed and the pressure
relief valve is closed (very important). A large lead weight
is then snapped to the case (to give it a slight negative buoyancy).
The aquanaut then slips off the end of the dock and floats down to
the habitat’s moon pool. The aquanaut inside then grips the
case and pulls the case inside.
inside, the pressure relief valve is opened to equalize the pressure
inside the habitat with the pressure inside the case. If that
were not accomplished, the case could never be opened at all, since
the air pressure holds it together with hundreds of pounds of force!
After the pressure is equalized, the case is opened and the bags of
cargo are pulled out.
OUT FOR THE NEXT DELIVERY
the aquanaut who delivered the case is still hanging around the moon
pool waiting for the load to go up topside – either sensitive trash
or the daily mission results or both. Trash that is unimportant
is bagged once in a plastic bag. The aquanaut then squeezes
as much air out of the bag as is possible, then ties it. He
then calls up to mission control and asks permission to jettison trash.
He then pushes it down below the lip of the moon pool and it rises
to the surface like a jet, expanding all the way up! A surface
aquanaut then swims over and picks it up and disposes of it properly.
case is a different matter altogether. It typically carries
objects that cannot afford to get wet – even computers, data, cameras
and other very high value objects. The objects are double bagged
and all the air possible is squeezed out of the bag. The aquanaut
then places the bag inside the case, snaps the lid closed then ensures
the valve is closed. He snaps the weight on its bottom and hands
it to the waiting aquanaut. He then grips the handle and lowers
it and heads back to the surface. The air inside the case begins
to expands, of course, as he rises. But if he squeezed enough
air out, it won’t pop the lid open on the way up (the cases do tend
to burp out once or twice on the way up). Once on the surface,
the aquanaut detaches the weight and then opens the valve. The
air hisses out of the case then it is opened! All the contents
are dry with perhaps a few drops on the outer plastic bag.
time we will look at the second part of ‘A Day
In The Life of an Aquanaut’ here in QuantumLimit.com.
This article was written as a one person perspective. Yet, it
did not and could not have been accomplished alone. None of
this adventure could have been possible with a whole lot of people
helping and forming the team that made all of the missions possible.
Among the most important of those were: Scott Carpenter, Dr. Bill Knott, Dr. Rose Grimes,
Aquanaut Chris Olstad of Mission Control and Ian Koblick of the Marine
Resources Development Foundation. While I designed the Scott
Carpenter Space Analog Station (SCSAS), I did not do it alone.
Joseph M. Bishop, the station’s chief engineer, also holds a significant
share of the design and systems engineering credit. And, of
course, I could never have gone there and stayed without the side-by-side
support of my wife, Claudia, who was always my on-site dive partner
and fellow aquanaut.