July 1969 is best remembered in popular culture for the Apollo 11 moon landings and Neil Armstrong’s declaration of “..a giant leap for mankind.” But at the same moments as the world was transfixed by NASA’s reports, another equally challenging expedition was underway off the North American coastline. Six men on board the Ben Franklin drifted for 30 days in the currents of the Gulf Stream, using very little power apart from their floodlights.
The Gulf Stream project grew out of earlier bathyscaph explorations. Bathys means deep and skaphe means light boat. Bathyscaph expeditions were designed to explore the depths, to plummet to the sea bed, make observations and then return to the surface. During the 1950s successful dives were made into the Marianas Trench at a depth of over 10,000 metres.
The Ben Franklin was different, she was a mesoscaph, meso meaning middle, and her design reflected that idea. The Ben Franklin was designed to be a light vessel using modern steel and Plexiglas to ensure that in the event of any problem, she could always return to the surface. Whereas launching bathyscaph required considerable winch power and large support vessels, mesoscaphs were expected to operate in shallower waters, with minimal surface support.
It took Jacques Piccard, a Swiss oceanologist (and no relation to Jean-Luc) nearly a decade to design and build the Ben Franklin. Jacques father, Dr Auguste Piccard was himself an ocean explorer who designed bathyscaphs and it was his discussions with Jacques that initiated the mesoscaph project. The design was a cylindrical cabin capable of holding the crew, with 400kg of Lithium hydroxide in panels to absorb the carbon dioxide, over 1100 kg of silica gel to absorb the water and reduce humidity, 250 kg of liquid oxygen and enough dehydrated food to last for 30 days. Piccard orginally envisaged the interior being lined with mahogany, to emulate a fine yacht, but was overridden and the internal structure was clinical and white.
Setting out from Florida, there was no big fanfare or press launch. The initial plan was to see if they could last 3 days and then make a decision over whether to continue. So on 14th July 1969 the Ben Franklin was towed into position and at 20.34 the hatch was closed. The crew descended initially to the bottom of the sea and then rose slightly controlling their descent by ditching ballast weight or adding air to ballast tanks. Over the next 30 days they would drift for 2800 km at speeds between 0.2 and 3 knots. They experienced internal waves within the Gulf Stream that would cause their depth to oscillate by over 100 metres, although the rate of rise didn’t concern the crew. They established that there was perceptible daylight at 600 metres and conducted a series of acoustic measurements using explosions set off from two surface support vessels.
On board for the trip was an observer from NASA, whose primary function was to look at the interaction between the crew. 50 years ago NASA was already considering the International Space Station and longer voyages to Mars. The Gulf Stream project provided an ideal test bed to study sleep patterns which deteriorated after the first 3 weeks and eating arrangements, as crew members chose to eat alone rather than together. Bacterial contamination, firstly of the cold water supply and then of the walls and floors would have posed a serious threat to the crew had the experiment continued beyond 30 days. Even an increase in the cleaning regime failed to stem the growth of bacteria.
Communications between the Ben Franklin and the surface support vessel the Privateer take place using an acoustic telephone, and the recordings made by the NASA observer show that the stress levels of the crew rose enormously at times when communications were restricted by weather or surface vessels deviating their course due to other ships. On 24th July 1969 as the crew of Apollo 11 splashdown into the ocean, the crew of the Ben Franklin are experiencing a temperature of 14 degrees and tumultuous seas as the internal waves catch the vessel. It wasn’t until 14th August that they surfaced and at 8.09 the hatch was opened. They were due east of Baltimore and the US Coastguard vessel Cook Inlet was there to rendezvous with them. A week later the Ben Franklin had been towed into New York for a hero’s welcome. A remarkable tale of human endeavour had come to an end, but in a world transfixed by the moon it was barely noticed.
Michelle has been scuba diving for over 20 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.