An Untapped Ocean of Opportunity, Part I

By Naval Medical Research Center News

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“Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it.”

~President John F. Kennedy

While NASA’s Project Mercury was transporting public imagination to the stars, a lone Navy Diving and Submarine Medical Officer looked to the seas as the new frontier of exploration and habitation.

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Navy deep sea diver qualification insignia’s are awarded in four degrees: Second Class Diver; First Class Diver; Master Diver and Diving Officer. Diving Medical Officer and Diving Medical Technician insignia’s are awarded to naval medical personnel qualified as divers or medical technicians.

In 1958, Cmdr. George Bond, (later Captain) a leader in the field of undersea and hyperbaric medicine proposed an ambitious plan of underwater research that seemed to be inspired by the writings of science fiction author Jules Verne. What Bond saw was a literal untapped ocean of opportunity for mineral mining, marine archeology, biology and colonization that could lead to discoveries of new medicines and harvestable resources.

However, prior to executing his bold idea Bond spearheaded Project Genesis (1957-1963), the first study of saturation diving in an artificial environment. So named for the biblical prophecy of man’s “dominion over the sea,” the experiments simulated a subsurface environment in a hyperbaric chamber and tested an assortment of gas mixtures that could be used by humans living in an ocean habitat.

The experiments took place at the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in New London, Conn. and the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.  andwere overseen by Bond and undersea medical officers Commanders Walt Mazzone and Robert Workman (both would become Captain’s). Bond and his team studied an assortment of animals and later humans related to various pressures and gases in the pressurized chamber. Goats were chosen as the preferred standard test subject because of their similarity to human anatomy.

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Saturated goats were to diving and undersea research what monkeys Able and Baker were to the space program.

Ben Hellwarth, author of SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor would assert that the “saturated goats” were to diving and undersea research what monkeys Able and Baker were to the space program. In 1962, Bond, Mazzone and Workman published their initial findings in Genesis: Prolonged Exposure of Animals to Pressurized Normal and Synthetic Atmospheres.

The project would ultimately culminate in August and September of 1963 when a Navy medical officer and two chief petty officers spent 12 days at a simulated record ocean depth of 200 feet while breathing artificial air, successfully proving that humans in a saturated state could perform useful functions for extended periods of time underwater. Over the next decades, Genesis findings would unlock potential for marine research, construction, and salvage operations while paving the way for underwater habitation projects of Jacques Cousteau, Edward Link and Bond’s experimental underwater habitat SEALAB.