Sealab was an ambitious U.S. Navy program in the sixties that was designed to enable divers to survive and thrive in underwater habitats. Though little known today, this short-lived (1964-1969) series of scientific experiments revolutionized diving and made possible extended work deep underwater possible as never before. Ben Hellwarth's Sealab traces the program's striking technological breakdowns and the tragic, bizarre cause of its sudden demise. A missing chapter in nautical history; editor's recommendation. (Hand-selling tip: The recent Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster italicizes the importance of this book.)
In the 1960s, the Navy developed Sealab, an experimental underwater habitat where humans could live for extended periods of time. Although it was eclipsed by the U.S. space program in funding and public interest, Hellwarth argues its equal importance. Though much of the written record remains classified, he interviews many of the still-living principal players and their families. As Sealab labored to develop stations deeper underwater, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Edwin Link were building their own habitats in competition. The physiological effects of deep-sea diving, the gradual improvement in equipment, the tragic deaths of several of the aquanauts, and the personalities of all involved are vividly depicted. Although Sealab was discontinued in 1970, the Navy, offshore oil companies, and the diving industry continued to reap many benefits from its legacy. VERDICT Although remotely operated vehicles have replaced manned undersea habitats, this account will be of great interest to divers, Navy buffs, submarine fans, and those interested in the exploration of both inner and outer space. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/11.]—Judith B. Barnett, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Kingston
Journalist Hellwarth chronicles American efforts to create an underwater habitat that would open the ocean's depths to exploration, at the same time that astronauts were racing to the moon. In 1959, Navy doctor George Bond, was given the project to train and equip seamen to escape from damaged submarines while avoiding the bends, the often-fatal arterial gas embolisms caused by rapid decompression of air as a diver rapidly surfaces. Bond envisaged expanding the program beyond rescue missions to encompass a wide range of underwater activities—scientific and industrial as well as military. He anticipated President Kennedy, who in 1961 proposed a major underwater exploration program as a matter of absolute necessity to the national interest, to the cost of $2 billion over the next decade. "Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it," said the president. This resulted in the creation of the Sealab program, which Bond was chosen to lead. Not only were the space and underwater exploration programs contemporaneous, but they shared key personnel such as Malcolm Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the earth who also led a Sealab II team that lived underwater successfully for 30 days. "Never had so many people lived and worked for so long at such depths…a grand total of three and a half man-years living on the bottom," writes the author. Unfortunately, the Sealab III mission was prematurely aborted after developing a serious leak, and that aspect of the program ended—although offshoots from it (many of which are still top secret) continued, including tapping submerged Soviet communications cables. Another offshoot was the development of technology necessary for off-shore drilling of oil and gas. Intriguing account of a relatively unknown program for undersea exploration.
During the same period that NASA was working toward putting a man on the moon, the U.S. Navy was testing ways for people to thrive underwater. This tale of the ill-fated Sealab project (whose impact is still felt in deep-sea diving) is as captivating as an adventure novel.”
“It’s Hellwarth’s eye for anecdote—pranks the aquanauts played on their commanding officers, the sparkling wine they drank at 200 feet below sea level even though the high pressure forced out the fizz—that brings this long-shuttered program back to life.”
“A thrilling, true-life adventure that transports the reader to a place as foreboding, exciting, and dangerous as outer space. Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab is more than a great history of unsung American explorers. It is a tale of man’s deepest desires and grandest ambitions, and his willingness to risk it all for dreams as vast as the ocean floor itself.”
—Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers
“[Hellwarth] combines the work of a diligent investigative reporter with that of a feature writer . . . Ben Hellwarth has produced a fascinating history of man in the sea. It is a book well worth reading, whether you are an aficionado of undersea operations or a casual reader who likes a great sea story.”
“Sealab is a must read for anyone who wants to know the true story behind America’s Man-in-the-Sea Program, complete with all of its triumphs and tragedies.”
—Dr. Robert D. Ballard, Deep Sea Explorer and author of The Discovery of the Titanic
“I grew up with Sealab and Conshelf. Our decisionmakers need to focus on the importance of one of our vital life support systems—the ocean, 70% of our planet. This incredibly detailed, precise book should be read by those who care about our future so they can start planning by basing their passion and decisions on solid foundations.”
—Jean-Michel Cousteau, founder and president, Ocean Futures Society
“Painstakingly reported and beautifully written, Sealab is proof that American literary journalism is alive and well. How deep under the water can man go, and how long can he stay there? Sealab is Ben Hellwarth’s fascinating answer.”
—Robert S. Boynton, Director of Literary Reportage Concentration, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University, and author of The New New Journalism
"Intelligently and accurately recorded, Ben Hellwarth's Sealab finally brings the historically significant story of America's daring aquanauts out of the long shadow of the nation's astronauts. Jules Verne himself would have been proud to tell this tale of teamwork and raw courage, with its colorful cast of divers boldly attempting to go far deeper into a hostile ocean and stay down far longer than ever before. Sealab is a magnificent book that honors those who risked all for science and their country.
—Leslie Leaney, Founder and Publisher, The Journal of Diving History