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Dennis Chamberland's
Science and Exploration
Today

 


 



(Note:  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.)

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PART ONE

My 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 rest.

But 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.

Sleeping 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.

There 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.

Because 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.

And 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.  

As 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.

The 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 limits.

Likewise, 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.

The 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.

But 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 time.

About the time I was about to drift off to sleep again, the call from mission control would invariably come.

“Control to station, control to station, good morning!”

As 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”.

THE AUTHOR RETURNS FROM A MORNING OUTSIDE THE HABITAT

The 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.

Think 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.

I 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!

Sometimes 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.

Early 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.

Reentering 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.

Breakfast 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.

Work 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.

DIRECTOR JAMES CAMERON AND AUTHOR IN A CLASSROOM LINK

The 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 to schools 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 and questions.  

Following 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.

Meals 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.  

Once 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.  

LOOKING OUT FOR THE NEXT DELIVERY

Meanwhile, 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.

The 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.

Next time we will look at the second part of ‘A Day In The Life of an Aquanaut’ here in QuantumLimit.com.

Note:  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.
 

 
 

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