National Geographic : 1966 Apr
Port Sudan during the summer of 1963. The main settlement, 36 feet down, housed five men for a full month. There was also a deep er camp in which two men lived and out of which they worked for a week in a regimen of half helium, half air, pushing the work range of oceanauts to 165 feet.* Our first continental-shelf structures were combinations of cylinders and domes. For Conshelf Three our engineering team, headed by Commandant Jean Alinat, went to the most logical form: the sphere. Our new under sea station, 18 feet in diameter, had two sto ries, the lower for diving, sleeping, and sani tation, the upper for dining, communications, and data gathering (painting, page 519). The oceanauts swam out to work through a bottom hatch that was open to the sea dur ing their whole time below. Pressure inside the house equaled pressure outside, so that water could not rise above the hatch. The steel globe rested on a 48-by-2 8-foot chassis that held 77 tons of ballast (half of it in iron pellets), water ballast tanks, and reservoirs of helium, oxygen, and compressed air. On the open deck of the chassis were nine tons of wash water in a big neoprene bag, and a bin of canned table water and fruit juices. Here also were the "lifeboats"-two three man Galeazzi decompression chambers, whose bottom hatches were kept open while the station was on the sea floor. In a life-or death situation the men could enter the cham bers, close the bottom hatches, and soar to the surface, there to undergo controlled decom pression in big medical pressure chambers. Fewer Ties Link Men With Surface Before Conshelf Three reached the plan ning stage, I had come to the conclusion that it was wrong, expensive, and dangerous to bind the underwater people to a welter of ships, machinery, and specialists on the sur face. I wanted to deliver them from total de pendence on vulnerable cables, pipes, tackle, processions of support divers, and people who wanted to hit their knees with rubber mallets. Our early oceanauts had lived in endless calm down below, but were at the mercy of surface storm damage to their communica tions and supplies. It was ridiculous. I set out to lessen Conshelf Three's reliance on the sur face, even though the new station was to be nine times deeper than earlier ones. The oceanauts would not be able to breathe air, because its nitrogen content would be lethal at 11 atmospheres; they would need an atmosphere of helium and oxygen, "heliox" 504 for short. They would be in darkness; at 100 meters, 328 feet, daylight is weak and dull. They would be alone; compressed-air divers from the sunlit world could not safely ven ture so deep. Only the diving saucer could visit them, and the only hand it could lend was its cold steel claw. As oceanauts, we selected from our under water research group skilled men in superior physical and mental states, who had per formed well in difficult situations. If a man had personal reasons for declining, all he had *See "At Home in the Sea," by Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, April, 1964.