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Why Aren't Aquanauts Famous?

In August 2007, a pair of Russian submersibles, both inauspiciously named Mir, descended 4 kilometers beneath the Arctic ice and planted a rustproof metal flag directly beneath the North Pole. Although a massive accomplishment -- and one that would have been impossible without our friend global warming..


In August 2007, a pair of Russian submersibles, both inauspiciously named Mir, descended 4 kilometers beneath the Arctic ice and planted a rustproof metal flag directly beneath the North Pole. Although a massive accomplishment -- and one that would have been impossible without our friend global warming -- the act didn't exactly send a shock wave through public awareness. Unlike that other famous flag-planting, it wasn't watched live by millions of people worldwide, glued rapturously to their television screens, or plastered across newspapers with headlines like, "the Mirs have landed!" It wasn't even widely reported, save for a brief snafu where some scenes from the movie Titanic were incomprehensibly mislabeled as the Mir expedition footage.And yet, a deep-sea submersible is as challenging a design problem as any Apollo-era engineer would have faced, and the sea presents many of its own, unique problems: claustrophobia, carbon dioxide, incredible pressure, and a darkness that looks, according to William Beebe, a passenger in the world's first bathysphere, like "the black pit-mouth of hell itself." The sea floor beneath the North Pole is as magnificently desolate as the surface of the moon, and we perhaps know even less about it; there are still things within our own oceans that are more alien than our most whimsical extra-terrestrial fantasies. In an alternate universe, perhaps, we might have ignored the moon landing and celebrated, instead, the explorers of our planet's inner space.In this universe, though, aquanauts just can't get no respect.There are only a handful of functional Deep Submergence Vehicles (DSVs) in the world: Alvin, a soon-to-be-retired US Navy submersible, the twin Russian Mirs, the very advanced Shinkai, made by the Japanese, and a French craft, Nautile. Together they form a kind of elite squad, capable of exploring the 90% of the planet that we don't have immediate dominion over.Sure, submersibles have had their moments of glory: Alvin trawled the wreckage of the Titanic with a couple archeologists in tow, and Trieste, a retired Swiss-designed bathyscape, touched down on the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, the deepest point on planet Earth, almost seven miles below the surface. Alvin called the International Space Station from beneath the sea, and poked around hydrothermal vents off the coast of the Galapagos, discovering complex ecosystems of life previously unknown to science.These were all big moments, but what about the brave men and women huddled inside these bubbles? Are they mere technicians, burdened with the limiting machinery of a serious submersible; or are they aquanauts, our human diplomats to a world of mystery and cold, unimaginable darkness? Why aren't these people famous, imbued with the glamour and mystique of their space-bound brethren, as they lie contorted in the same metal cabins, peering out the same thick windows into a dark, alien landscape, dotted with the detritus of the world, and populated by creatures that would wither above the surface?Perhaps it's a case of bad PR. Although planting a sub-Arctic flag was a symbolic first for the watery deep, there was no "One step for man" moment that day, under the North Pole. Rather, the Russian polar explorer Arthur Chilingarov, who manned the Mir 1, merely commented on the yellowness of the ground and the conspicuous absence of sea creatures.The lack of pageantry led the Canadian foreign minister to quip, "this isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags." He was citing concerns about untapped energy reserves beneath the sea, a booty which Russia might have access to if it manages to prove its continental shelf reaches that far, but he may as well have been quoting Captain Nemo, Jules Verne's sea-bound misanthrope."The sea," Nemo pronounces, in one of literature's more glamorous depictions of the bathysphere, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, "does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can be carried away with terrestrial horrors, but at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears."Perhaps, after the hydrothermal vents and the phosphorescent fish, this is the most valuable lesson that manned deep-sea exploration can teach us. Astronauts have always remarked, after seeing the Earth from a new perspective, on the silliness of borders; aquanauts, on the other hand, have never had such a privilege. Their journeys are to the belly of the world, but it takes much less distance from the surface to see human influence, as Nemo says, quenched.
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