LBJ & the Helium-Filled Astronaut

Lost and Found Sound: A Bizarre Phone Conversation

President Lyndon B. Johnson lifts his beagle by the ears, April 27, 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson lifts his beagle by the ears, April 27, 1964. Cecil Stoughton, LBJ Library Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Cecil Stoughton, LBJ Library Collection

Producer Larry Massett shares a found piece of tape. It's a rare recording of the President of the United States from 1964. At the time, the US Navy had a project called "SeaLab."


The Navy was experimenting with sending divers to deeper and deeper depths for longer and longer periods of time. One of these divers- the former astronaut Scott Carpenter- has just set a world record: he's spent thirty days in the ocean at a depth of 200 feet.

Produced by Larry Massett for Lost and Found Sound.

A pre-arranged phone call to the White House is planned. The idea is to have President Lyndon Johnson offer Commander Carpenter a formal congratulation. This is a purely ceremonial call. It should be cut-and-dried. But there's a bizarre problem. Commander Carpenter is no longer underwater; he's in a decompression chamber. He's breathing air in which nitrogen- the gas which can give people the bends- has been replaced by helium. Helium is harmless, but it distorts the voice. When he speaks, Commander Carpenter sounds like Mickey Mouse.

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