GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Nine years before NASA put a man on the moon, the U.S. Navy sent humans further than they'd ever gone before - but in the opposite direction.

Early in 1960, the Trieste Bathyscaphe, a pressurized diving capsule, took a nearly seven-mile plunge to the deepest-known point on Earth, the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.

One of the pilots was the Swiss oceanographer Jacques Picard. The other was a young Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh.

This past week, Walsh was awarded the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal 50 years after what is still the deepest man dive in history. And Don Walsh joins me in the studio.

Welcome and congratulations to you.

Mr. DON WALSH: Thank you. It's good to be here and help tell the story.

RAZ: Now, before I ask you about the dive, tell me how you got involved in the project at all.

Mr. WALSH: Well, I was a submarine officer in San Diego, a lieutenant at the time, and a call went out for volunteers to participate in this program with something that was unpronounceable, a bathyscaphe. I knew it went underwater but this was something different. It didn't go horizontally like a regular ship or submarine, it went vertically. But it sounded like an interesting project.

So, I put my hand up, and I didn't have to put it up very far because there was only one volunteer.

RAZ: So, it looked like a kind of a capsule with a huge bladder above it. You describe it as the size of a Greyhound bus.

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. Actually, to really simplify it for your listeners, it's nothing more than a balloon. And if you take that whole notion of a balloon and put it in the ocean, you have to have a lighter-than-water substance so it'll float. Oil floats on water, doesn't it?

RAZ: Right.

Mr. WALSH: So, we fill this balloon with 35,000 gallons of aviation gasoline. And suspended beneath it was the cabin to protect the fragile humans and that's all there was to it.

RAZ: So tell me about that day, January 23rd, 1960, the day that the Trieste was sent down seven miles beneath the ocean surface.

Mr. WALSH: 7:30 in the morning, we began the dive and took us about five hours and some change to get to the sea floor.

RAZ: You were in this tiny pressurized vessel. Was there much to see or was it pitch black?

Mr. WALSH: Well, it's pitch black after about, let's say, 500 feet. And in the deep sea, beyond the penetration of sunlight, there's a lot of bioluminescence. These organisms are emitting light. And the feeling as you went pass through these colonies of organisms was like when you were in the house looking out the window and it's snowing and the lights reflecting off the snowflakes coming down.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Mr. WALSH: But in our case, the snowflakes, if you were coming up, 'cause we're passing down through these animals.

RAZ: Were you nervous at any point? I mean, we're talking about 200,000 tons of pressure exerted on this capsule. I mean, were you ever nervous that it might just collapse (unintelligible)?

Mr. WALSH: Well, the thing is, Guy, if it did collapse, it would be instantaneous. You wouldn't even be aware of it. As we approached the bottom, we pretty well knew what the water depth was. And when we got to about 35,000 feet, I turned on the fathometer, which would allow us to get a trace or a printout on a chart that shows you the bottom coming up. And at 35,000 - no bottom; 36,000 feet - no bottom; 37,000 - no bottom. What's going on? Did we find a new place? At 37,800 feet, we finally landed on the bottom.

RAZ: Tell me, Don Walsh, why do you think there wasn't more sort of hoopla made of your dive in 1960? I mean, it has been compared to the moon landing.

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. With apologies to Tom Wolf, we had the right stuff but the wrong direction, I guess. But that bothered me over all those years. Not me personally, but why wasn't that used as a springboard to move us into the ocean depths to do more? This is one world record that a person should take no pride in holding for half a century, because that means people weren't out there exploring our oceans.

RAZ: That's Don Walsh. He is a retired Navy captain and in 1960, he traveled nearly seven miles beneath the ocean surface. This past week, he was awarded the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal. It's the highest award the society gives.

Don Walsh, thank you so much.

Mr. WALSH: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: And to see pictures of Don Walsh and the 1960 Trieste Bathyscaphe mission, visit our website, NPR.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.