Nov 02 2008

Jacques Piccard — Ocean's Most Daring Explorer Dies

The Apollo Maslow Window — aproximately 1959 to 1970 — was a remarkably ebullient time of Great Explorations like Apollo that were accomplished by great explorers. But not all of them went up into space, a few went down — way down.

Perhaps the most daring of them all was oceanographer Jacques Piccard who died yesterday (New York Times, 11/2/08) at 86 in his Lake Geneva, Switzerland home. On January 23, 1960 Piccard and a Navy officer (Lt. Don Walsh) took the Trieste straight down 35,813 feet into the ocean’s deepest spot — the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench — near Guam in the western Pacific. By the way, the summit of Mount Everest is “only” 29,035 feet above sea level, and commercial jets typically cruise between 30,000 and 35,000 feet, just for some perspective.

In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh took the Trieste 35,813 feet down into the Challenger Deep; the only time it’s ever been done. Click triestepiccard.jpg.

According to Mr. Piccard, “By far the most interesting find was the fish that came floating by our porthole. We were astounded to find higher marine life forms down there at all.” The Challenger Deep has a pressure of 17,000 psi; almost 1200 atmospheres.

As a young boy during this time I had been amazed by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the birth of NASA and the space program shortly after, but when I heard about Piccard and the Trieste, it blew me away. Although going into space had its own dangers, somehow the idea of going 7 miles into the ocean scared me to death. The daring of Piccard and Walsh still gives me chills; it was the only human mission to the Challenger Deep ever made.

Piccard studied economics, history, and physics in college, and then taught economics at the University of Geneva while helping his physicist, aeronaut, hydronaut father develop the bathyscaphe for deep sea missions. The U.S. Navy was so impressed with the Trieste that in 1958 they bought it and hired Piccard as their consultant.

Just 2 days before the launch of Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969, the “Ben Franklin”, also known as the Grumman/Piccard PX-15 mesoscaphe, was launched into the Gulf Stream off the coast of Palm Beach, FL. It had a crew of 6 headed by Piccard and, at a depth of 1000 feet, drifted northward 1,444 miles during more than 4 weeks. Before the mission, Wernher von Braun — father of the American space program and developer of the Saturn V launch vehicle — visited the Franklin in Palm Beach. He asked NASA scientist Chet May to go on the Franklin as a NASA observer, to study the effects of long-term isolation on the crew for possible insights into long duration space missions.

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