Navy honors officer 50 years after voyage to ocean depths

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; B01

The sunlight began to fade a few hundred feet down. Shades of gray turned to black. The steel structure groaned as the water pressure increased, and the Trieste sank toward the fabled gorge in the Pacific Ocean floor known as Challenger Deep.

One thousand feet. Two thousand feet. At 2,400 feet, the two crewmen dimmed the cabin lights to let their eyes adjust. At about 13,000 feet, they entered the abyssal zone -- "the timeless world of eternal darkness," one of them wrote later.

At 31,000 feet, they echo-sounded for the bottom. There was no return. At 32,400 feet, a thick window cracked with a bang. Farther down they went. Into the bleak hadal zone, named for Hades, the ancient Greek underworld. Finally, at 35,800 feet, then-Navy Lt. Don Walsh, 28, phoned the surface: "This is Trieste. We are on the bottom of Challenger Deep. . . . Over."

It was Jan. 23, 1960. Walsh and crewmate Jacques Piccard had reached one of the most forbidding places on Earth, a place where no one had been before -- and no one has been since.

Walsh, who went on to a distinguished career in sea exploration and writing, is the only person alive who has been to Challenger Deep -- at almost seven miles, the deepest place in all the world's oceans. Twelve people have walked on the moon. Thousands have climbed Mount Everest. But only two have been to the legendary black hole in the ocean floor -- "the last extreme on our earth that remained to be conquered," wrote Piccard, who died two years ago at the age of 86.

On Wednesday, in a ceremony at the National Geographic Society, Walsh, of Dora, Ore., received the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award and the society's gold-plated Hubbard Medal, which has also gone to the likes of aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Neil Armstrong and oceanographer Robert Ballard.

On Thursday, he was honored as a "national treasure" at the Washington Navy Yard -- where the Trieste is on display, along with a model of the vessel, in the Navy museum there -- and then participated at a symposium on ocean exploration at the National Press Club.

The events mark the 50th anniversary of the famous descent, an achievement Walsh loves to talk about, although he shrugs when asked how he feels about it: He was just a young naval officer trying to leave a dull job on a submarine tender.

Walsh is 78 now. He has gray hair and is long retired from the Navy. But he still has the thick forearms of a sailor -- an old "mariner," as he calls himself. As he sits in a Washington hotel room recounting the adventure, he tells the tale as if it happened last week, with the wonder of a man who has been to a mystical place.

An age of exploration

The descent happened during an era of manic technological advances and exploration. Sputnik had gone into orbit in 1957. An American satellite had beamed the first pictures from space. High-altitude balloonists probed the atmosphere. The X-15 rocket plane made its debut. An American submarine reached the North Pole underwater.

And the Navy had just purchased the Trieste, a deep diving bathyscaphe, from its Swiss designer, Auguste Piccard. By modern standards, it was a crude device. The steel crew sphere was slung beneath a huge chamber that was filled with aviation gasoline, for buoyancy in the high pressure of deep water, and fitted with two hoppers of iron pellets for ballast.

It had been beefed up to reach the deepest depths of the oceans, where Walsh said it had to withstand eight tons of pressure per square inch -- roughly the same as an elephant standing on a quarter -- and a total of 200,000 tons of pressure against its five-inch-thick hull. It had a main, cone-shaped window made of seven-inch-thick Plexiglas.

Walsh, then a submarine officer, heard about the Trieste when it was delivered to a Navy installation in San Diego, where he had a drab job aboard a sub tender. The Trieste needed sub officers to join Piccard's son Jacques, who came with the vessel as a key adviser. Walsh, sensing opportunity, volunteered. "I was a mariner," he said. "I was a sailor."

He first saw the Trieste disassembled on a barge. "It looked like an explosion in a boiler factory," he said. It didn't look much better assembled. It was essentially a stubby submarine but with the propellers topside and floodlights on the bottom.

In January 1960, the Trieste was towed to the ocean site above Challenger Deep, a hole in the Mariana Trench south of Guam. The "deep" is named for the British vessel HMS Challenger, which found it in 1951. Walsh, on a destroyer escort, rendezvoused at the site with Jacques Piccard, who was aboard the tugboat towing the Trieste from Guam.

But Walsh said the exact spot above the hole was uncertain, and "we didn't have any deep depth sounders."

So before the Trieste arrived, Navy scientists detonated explosives in the water to see how long it took the sound to echo off the bottom. "Basically, 12 seconds is deeper than seven seconds," Walsh said. Stopwatches were used to measure the time from the detonation to the moment the echo came back to the ship's fathometer. "Boom, it goes off," Walsh said. "Start the stopwatch. Then you hear the bang come back, and you stop it."

Descent into the deep

The descent began at 8:23 a.m., according to a book Jacques Piccard co-wrote a year later, "Seven Miles Down." The men had a change of clothes to replace garments that got wet and 15 chocolate bars for sustenance. The sphere, inside, was about 38 cubic feet, "which is the same as a large household refrigerator," Walsh said, "and about the same temperature."

The trip down and back, with 20 minutes on the bottom, would take all day, about 4 1/2 hours down and 3 1/2 back up.

When they started down, the light began to fade within a few hundred feet, Walsh said. "You go to shades of gray," he said, "and finally, it's just black." It was quiet. Piccard wrote of the hiss of oxygen and the hum of electronics. Walsh said the structure itself made noise. "It kind of groans and creaks as it's adjusting to the increasing pressure," he said.

There were minute leaks, Piccard wrote, that came and went. There was the peculiar "snowfall" of bioluminescent particulates, which seemed to flow up as the Trieste went down. "You're passing through them," Walsh said. "They're not moving -- you are."

The crack, in a secondary window, came with "a great big bang," he said. "Shook the whole thing." But nothing else happened, "so we decided just to continue."

As they approached the bottom, the water grew brighter from the reflection of their floodlights off the ocean floor.

Then a cloud of sediment began rising. But instead of drifting off, it lingered. Piccard spotted a flatfish that swam away. Walsh could see little. "It was like looking at a bowl of milk," he said. Gently, the Trieste settled on the floor of Challenger Deep.

The two men shook hands and took snapshots of each other. But they could stay on the bottom for only 20 minutes. It was hard to see through the sediment cloud, Walsh said, and they needed to get back to the surface before nightfall so they could be spotted by the support ships. Tired and cold, they began their ascent, Walsh wrote later, with a feeling of anticlimax: "The big moment had passed."

On the surface, they had time to reflect. "How soon before somebody comes back?" Walsh said they wondered. "A year? Two years?"

He and Jacques Piccard were in the national spotlight for a time. Walsh wrote his version of the story for Life magazine; Piccard wrote his for National Geographic. Both men were invited to the White House to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But their moment faded, and the world's gaze was soon fixed on the heavens.

In 1961, Jacques Piccard predicted in his book that "within a few years the rush into outer space will be matched by an . . . invasion of inner space."

And over the years, other vessels have indeed visited Challenger Deep, but never with humans on board.

This week, a half-century after Trieste's famous descent, Walsh said they had been certain man would soon return.

"Never happened," he said.

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