The 1950’s were coming to an end and Man was preparing to explore the furthest frontiers. In the United States, the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration was designing the Mercury spacecraft. A single astronaut would be set atop a modified ballistic missile. The first flights would go almost 200 miles straight up and down. At the same time, the Soviet Union was working on the Vostok space capsule. Their plan was to launch it using the same rocket that had already scored such space spectaculars as the first two Sputnik satellites.
While both nations looked up to the highest heights, the US Navy was planning to dive into the deepest depths. The Trieste was an experimental bathyscaphe. It had already explored the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and was engineered to withstand the pressure at 20,000 feet. The Navy purchased the Trieste and began a program of extensive modification. In the 1870’s, the British ship Challenger had discovered an area of the Pacific Ocean that was more than 30,000 feet deep. Project Nekton was designed to send men to explore the bottom of the sea.
The Trieste’s habitation module – where the crew would sit – was a round steel sphere less than seven feet around. This was slightly larger than the bell shaped Mercury capsule and slightly smaller than Vostok. However, it could hold two crewmen. Like its rocket counterparts, the habitation area was only a small part of the entire craft. The Trieste was primarily a large tank of gasoline; used for buoyancy rather than fuel. Gasoline is lighter than water.
Anxious moments abounded in all of the programs. Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft almost spun out of control when it failed to detach from its equipment module. A faulty sensor causes astronaut Scott Carpenter to overshoot his landing by almost 250 miles. As the Trieste descended, the outer glass of the window cracked. Communications were a challenge for all three craft. The Soviet Union lacked a deep water navy and could only communicate with the Vostok spacecraft when it was over friendly territory. The United States set up a global network of listening posts and they could talk to their astronauts for at least a few minutes every hour. While the Trieste was technically traveling only seven miles, round trip conversation time was fourteen seconds; five times longer than the lag the Apollo astronauts had when they were on the moon.
Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight lasted slightly over fifteen minutes. Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit took an hour and a half. It took the Trieste almost nine hours to get to the bottom of the ocean and back, but the crew was only able to spend twenty minutes there. And while more than five hundred people have followed those first pioneers into space, no other human being has ever returned to the deepest part of the ocean.