Astronauts in the Ocean

By Sarah Treadwell – BMSIS Science Writer

Author and aquanaut, Alan A. Allen has worked in an office which few others can say they ever had. If we are ever lucky enough to have a window in our office, we rejoice. Allen’s office view was more than a window, it was the ocean floor. During the 60’s and 70’s, Alan conducted research with NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) studying the effects of oil spills on marine life. Using different types of additives to make the oil sink. The study utilized extended underwater time for experiments as Alan would live with other scientists under water in a hydro-lab. Normally when diving and frequently surfacing, various amounts of time is needed to allow adequate decompression. Living there, the aquanauts were able to adjust to the pressure levels they were under without needing to surface, which allowed them maximum time for research.  

Alan outside of the Hydro-lab – Photo Courtesy of Alan A. Allen

As a recently certified SCUBA diver and avid space enthusiast, it occurred to me there was a unique connection between these two interests of mine. The activity of diving can provide an astronaut-like experience in a way which cannot be simulated anywhere else. Whether under the water or in the vacuum of space, being in an environment devoid of oxygen can be an intense challenge, not to mention overcoming fear.

For me, I soon realized how Scuba diving is as close as a human can get to the experience of being an astronaut without leaving Earth. While many cite the neutral buoyancy in the water as the most notable part of feeling like an astronaut while diving, personally I believe it is the mental walls a diver must overcome that is the biggest relatable challenge. This is something I pondered if Alan had ever experienced as well.

Posing this question to Alan, he responded, “When I was in dive school, one of the tests was to see if we would experience something that we learned about in the classroom. They were saying that if you are doing a lot of heavy work at sea, people have died because they panicked. They start a process of three symptoms and if you get to the third symptom quite often you will just lock up, hold your breath, and shoot for the surface. So we went down and they wanted us to experiment to get through just the first two symptoms and then we would stop working and relax. We went down to about 80 feet, and they had us do exercises that really put our bodies through a lot of physical stress. After a while I felt the first symptom, a really rapid heartbeat, which didn’t frighten me too much.”

He emphasized, “But the other two symptoms came on very fast. The instructors were watching us closely… and I began to have very heavy breathing. Then my vision narrowed, as if looking through a tube. And I was ready to choke up and was out of control. Fortunately, an instructor was right there near me, and I grabbed him and he just wrapped his arms around me, so I couldn’t go anywhere. That feeling of that man holding me tight allowed my heart rate and breathing to return to normal.”

Having also experienced this fear firsthand, I thought back to the first time I donned some SCUBA gear and submerged in a shallow indoor pool. A wave of panic struck me which can only be describe as primal. The feeling of a survival instinct took over, knowing that I was somewhere where I couldn’t breathe.  All the air I could ever want was just up above my head. Bolting up to the surface is extremely dangerous, particularly in the case of deeper dives in lakes or oceans. To do so would cause a pulmonary embolism. Without a doubt, and solely because of the patience from my instructors to include many subsequent dives I was able to figure out ways to overcome this fear. 

Me diving through a sunken boat in Pearl Lake, IL – Photo Credit Dan Dulgar

Astronauts no doubt have similar fears and challenges when performing duties in space. Relying on their equipment and trusting it will keep them alive. If a problem arises, it must be handled with calm, clarity, and trust in their support systems. A well-known example is when astronaut Chris Hatfield experienced the inability to see out of both eyes temporarily while on a spacewalk. Unsure of the root cause, Hatfield was instructed to release air out of his space suit in the hope it would help resolve the unexplained eye irritation.

Speaking publicly often about this experience, Hatfield discusses his acute awareness of the very thin veil of protection which was keeping him alive. How he had to navigate emotionally releasing his precious oxygen supply out into space was an intense moment. Ultimately the cause was a chemical from the defogger in the suit. It was determined to be the source of the issue. With eyesight returned, he continued with his space flight duties.

Under the water, Alan and teammates would spend their days performing many different experiments to determine the effects of additives on oil which would force it to sink to the ocean floor. They would spend a week or two doing this research which required them to learn how to rely on each other. Life on the Hydro-lab was also cramped, which is very similar to what astronauts must adjust to when working and traveling in space. Tasks at hand to be performed certainly helped the hydro-lab crew keep distracted and deal with these common mental challenges. Being claustrophobic is not an option for astronauts and aquanauts alike, as there is no way to exit the habitats keeping them safe. Despite the risks and challenges of surviving in extreme environments, Alan’s experience was cohesive and positive, and bonded by a common cause. 

Alan performing experiments under the water – Photo courtesy Alan A. Allen

Allan equated his experience, “It was somewhat like Frank White’s interviews that he’s held with astronauts, in his book ‘The Overview Effect’, though it was nowhere as profound as looking at the Earth from space, but it was similar in the sense that it was wonderful to live down on the floor of the ocean long enough to really get to know the animals we were working with.”

He further reflected, “To sense appreciation for the fact that our oceans are impacted by oil and even though, because oil spills aren’t that frequent in a given area, pollutants like plastic bottles, bags and other waste are far worse. Polluting huge areas of the ocean. I mean, that’s really serious. These impacts and the  accumulations of pesticides from rivers that wash out into the coastal regions. It gives you a perspective on the magnitude and seriousness of our actions when you have the opportunity to witness firsthand the plants and animals that depend upon clean, unpolluted waters.”

A view inside the Hydro-lab – Photo courtesy Alan A. Allen
A view inside the Hydro-lab – Photo courtesy Alan A. Allen

Through the years working at the hydro-lab, and working on spill prevention and control, Alan has helped reduce spills and minimize impacts of oil and other pollutants within and below the ocean. In addition to finding fulfilment in meaningful work, Allen has forever been changed by his experiences in the ocean world so few get to see. Speaking personally, diving is one of the most life changing activities I’ve ever tried in my adult life. It’s pushed me to travel to new places, meet amazing people, and challenge myself on a very interpersonal level.

Myself and Sarah Silva diving with sharks in the Florida Keys – Photo credit Corey Ricketts

This experience has helped me face my own fears both of different environments much like being in another world, along with my personal life This experience has allowed me to become as close to an astronaut as possible while still on Earth. Talking with Alan was more than an opportunity to learn about his work, it was to witness another diver’s perspective, wonder and awe that comes with seeing the world in a different environment. 

Says Alan, “Seeing the variety of wonderful critters down there… that to me was euphoric. When I close my eyes and think about it I can still see (it). Those are the things that I think that add to the changes in your life that make it so thrilling.”

Coral scenery under the ocean – Photo courtesy Alan A. Allen.

Sarah Treadwell is a science communicator and a science writer for Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. There she also helps produce the show “Ask an Astrobiologist” with NASA and SAGANet. She is the host of a weekly talk show called Cosmic Waves with Space Case Sarah on IRoc Space Radio. She also serves as a NASA/JPL volunteer Solar System Ambassador.