SEALAB Manned Undersea Habitat

As NASA launched its effort to reach the moon, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) spearheaded attempts to show that humans could live and work at the bottom of the ocean.

In a parallel to the “Space Race,” ONR led biomedical studies in what would become known as the Sealab undersea habitat.

SEALAB IISealab II was established off the coast of California in 1965. This shows the first of three Sealab II teams, which included former astronaut Scott Carpenter (second from left in the front row).
(U.S. Navy photo)

Sealab I was lowered into the water at the U.S. Naval Station Bermuda in July 1964. It housed four researchers for 11 days at 192 feet. Sealab II was lowered off of La Jolla, California, to 203 feet in 1965. American astronaut and aquanaut Scott Carpenter spent a record 30 days in this submerged world.

The principal investigator was Navy Capt. George Bond, the “Father of Saturation Diving.” His experiments explored the extreme physiological and psychological exposures of undersea habitation. Among their many pioneering efforts, the team investigated the effects of nitrogen narcosis on cognition, tested diver warming with the new “Neoprene” foam wet suit and developed a method to compensate for the high-pitched “chipmunk” speech experienced when breathing helium.

Sealab was primarily a habitability study, but the experiments also enabled covert missions that played a key role in the undersea Cold War of the 1970s. ONR’s Sealab expeditions vastly advanced the operational capabilities of saturation diving and submarine rescue.

Another major Sealab challenge was developing safe decompression procedures for saturation diving. These experiments aided in the creation of the decompression tables used today.

Today’s ONR Undersea Medicine program is a direct descendent of Sealab and seeks to understand the human challenges of undersea exploration in the modern age of biomedical science and technology. The goal is to develop technological and pharmaceutical interventions that both expand the operational envelope and increase survivability in emergency situations such as submarine rescue.

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