As astronauts continue construction on the world's largest outpost in space, some hope to begin building a research base at the other end of our world — deep under the ocean.
The proposed Ocean Atmosphere Seafloor Integration Study, or OASIS, would offer aquanauts (the underwater version of astronauts) a permanent perch on the continental shelf about 600 feet below the ocean surface. And unlike a journey to the International Space Station, a trip to an ocean base could be as easy as stepping on an elevator and pushing "down."
"Right now, we're very limited in the amount of time you can stay at the bottom," says Richard Cooper, founder of Ocean Technology Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Groton, Conn., and a professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. "This could give us the ability to go deeper and stay down much longer."
The OASIS proposal remains just that — a proposal. In order to make it happen, Cooper and his crew are lobbying different groups — including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy — for the estimated $60 million required to execute the plan.
This could be a tough battle, since many research centers are vying for scraps of the nation's meager $400 million ocean research budget. Some think other proposals, including a new deep-water submersible to replace the aging Alvin and the installation of remotely controlled instruments on the ocean floor might have better chances.
But Cooper and his team remain hopeful, and to help sell their idea they have fine-tuned a couple blueprints.
As envisioned, OASIS could take one of two forms. Ocean Base One would be a fixed station on the seafloor the size of a large supermarket. A more mobile version, called the Fathom Explorer, would carry a long elevator and undersea station on board a converted 1,000-foot-long oil tanker. At any given moment, the stem-like elevator with the attached station could be lowered from the boat's middle into the deep like a jackknife blade extending from its handle.
Both would provide elevators that could carry aquanauts to one of two chambers below at a depth of 600 feet, or about two football field lengths under the surface. One capsule would be kept at normal, above-water atmospheric pressure so travelers wouldn't need to don diving gear or spend time acclimating to deep-water pressures before descending.
Another section would have ambient pressure of surrounding waters so acclimated divers could set off on dives directly from the chamber without spending time adjusting and readjusting to changing pressures. Only when divers returned to the surface would they need to spend time readjusting to normal pressures to avoid a potentially deadly condition known as the bends.
For Research, Inspections, Rescues …
Cooper says either version would be invaluable for studying the effects of factors like pollution and over fishing at the continental shelf. The only undersea lab in existence, Aquarius, sits at a more shallow level, 70 feet beneath the ocean surface off Key Largo, Fla. and is used mainly to study coral reef systems.
But in order to better their chances for funding, the OASIS team has considered a variety of uses beyond research. Ted Colburn, a recently retired coast guard officer and chairman of the OASIS board, says one could use the base to do offshore inspections of incoming ships for contraband or explosives.
The Fathom Explorer version could be used to inspect wrecks — although it could not reach the same depths as the submersible Alvin, which was used to explore the wreck of the Titanic more than 12,000 feet below the surface. And in an emergency situation like the August 2000 explosion that sank Russia's Kursk submarine, a mobile unit might prove helpful in rescue operations.
Perhaps most important, a ocean base would offer a view of the unexpected.
Oceans cover 70 percent of the world's surface, but because the deep is an unforgiving environment for humans, little has been explored. Scientists estimate more than 90 percent of the ocean environment remains unknown and unseen. An ocean base, particularly one that offers a section with normal air pressure, could potentially offer an easy-access window to surprise forms of sea life.
As Sylvia Earle, a renowned diver and former chief scientist at NOAA, has argued, the best way to make new discoveries is to put people underwater.
Man or Machine?
But some argue the easiest, least dangerous way to peer into the deep is through remote instruments. In fact, the current debate over how to allocate funding to ocean research projects sounds a lot like the debate that has raged within NASA for years: Is it better to send people or machines to space?
"When you send people into the ocean, you need to worry about safety and time is limited to some extent," says Larry Clark of the National Science Foundation's Ocean Research Section. "Ocean processes often work over long periods, which instruments are best suited to study."
Others argue studying the deep ocean is a step-by-step process. As in space exploration, they say, we should begin by sending more robotic devices to the deep, then eventually develop habitats for human observation.
"My gut feeling is a deep-water station at this point is premature," says Richard Lutz, director of Rutgers University's Center for Deep Sea Ecology and Biotechnology in New Brunswick, N.J. "And I think when we do get one, we'd want to be dealing with deeper water than 600 feet."
Steven Miller, director of NOAA's Aquarius sea lab, which is used for research as well as for training astronauts to live in tightly controlled, small quarters, also remains unconvinced a deep water station is now worth its price tag.
"Cost is a big deal these days and when you have tax-supported programs, you really need to justify the ends," he says. "I'm not sure there is a need at this point … but I have an open mind."