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Scientific VIEW

Navy's Deep Interest in Titanic Probe

August 06, 1986|BETTY ANN KEVLES

Even in daytime the grave of the H.M.S. Titanic is pitch-dark 2 1/2 miles below the surface of the Atlantic. But the undersea explorer Alvin is equipped with lights that penetrate the depths for 50 feet. Peering through the windows as the mini-submarine maneuvered the space around the remains of the historic vessel, Navy Lt. Michael D. Mahre described the experience as "better than a Double E ticket at Disneyland."

Mahre was exuberant on his arrival at Woods Hole, Mass., aboard the Atlantis II last week. Unlike most of the triumphant crew, however, for whom the Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod marked journey's end, Mahre had to wait another 24 hours to be welcomed home by the Submarine Development Group at the Navy Station in Point Loma on San Diego Bay.

Mahre, 26, lives in San Diego, where he is an engineer at the U.S. Naval Station. A 1981 graduate of the Naval Academy, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and, after continued study, qualified last year as a nuclear engineer. Mahre, with an easy grin, describes himself as an eligible bachelor.

A Joint Venture

Mahre's involvement with the exploration of the Titanic is part of the Navy's interest in undersea rescue techniques. The discovery and subsequent effort to map the ruins of the great ship has been a joint venture of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Navy. Both parties had their own agendas. The Woods Hole people have been interested for generations in exploring undersea geology and marine life. The Navy has a more recent interest in enhancing sonar techniques of detecting underwater objects with an accurate visual imaging system. The search for, and subsequent exploration of the 74-year-old "unsinkable" vessel provided the Navy with a chance to test the undersea exploration and eventual rescue system that it has been developing.

Like a series of Chinese boxes, the Atlantis II, a 210-foot research vessel containing seven working laboratories, carried Alvin. Sitting at the bow of the ship on tracks, the 25-foot Alvin was launched when the Atlantis II reached the mid-Atlantic site. Unlike vehicles on an aircraft carrier, however, the Alvin was launched into the waves, not above them. The Alvin, in turn, carried a suitcase-sized robot, Jason Jr., which carried a color television camera and was connected by a 250-foot tether to the Alvin. It is this highly complex robot that Mahre directed during the submersion he made along with pilot Brian Kissel, also from San Diego, and the head of the project, Capt. Robert Ballard.

Mahre confesses that until he actually saw the giant hull of the fore end of the Titanic resting in an almost horizontal position, and then saw the twisted wreckage of the stern where most of the doomed passengers huddled as the ship sank, he had been preoccupied with the technology of the experiment. But the sight of the ship moved him deeply. Saddened, he could never quite shake the awe at the memory of about 1,500 people for whom this great rusting hulk became a tomb.

The absence of any surviving wood was a surprise to the explorers, but almost as strange to Mahre was the sight of what looked from a distance like planks of decking that, on closer scrutiny, turned out to be the lines of grouting between the boards. They had outlasted the boards themselves. Mahre was also struck by the enormous hull draped in streamers of rust.

Time Limit on Trip

And through it all life continued, undersea life with strange albino crabs, rat-tailed fish with bulbous heads and tails two feet long, and gigantic red shrimps the size of lobsters, which Mahre, indeed, mistook at first for lobsters before letting a closer look.

His trip in the Alvin lasted 10 hours, portal-to-portal--with five hours taken up with descent and ascent. The vehicle's interior is only six feet in diameter but holds three people and a lot of equipment. With space cramped, the crew could barely move to perform their tasks. Pressurized to withstand the almost 400 times atmospheric weight, the crew moved in relative comfort, their sack lunches at hand for a deep-sea snack. However, when they reached the wreckage and were absorbed in steering, guiding Jason, and taking video as well as still pictures, they had to work fast. At one point, Mahre recalls, they were buried almost up to their necks in videocassettes as they did not have time to stack and file each reel but hurriedly went on to the next.

Ten hours is about as long as the Navy figures a trip in the Alvin will take. So although conditions inside the mini-submarine are reminiscent of the cockpit of a spacecraft, the crew is not trained, as astronauts are, in isometrics and other survival techniques for life in a small, enclosed space.

The Navy's goal, according to Mahre, is to perfect the system so that rescues can be made from the surface. The Alvin, which proved its efficacy in 1966 when it discovered a lost U.S. hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain after a mid-air collision, is seen as a stop-gap method while the Navy perfects a system of unmanned vehicles. Eventually, Mahre explains, the Navy hopes to have a rescue vehicle that can direct unmanned submersible vehicles to rescue a troubled sub, for instance, by "mating" it to the hatch, and thus allow occupants to exit and escape.

Mahre made only one descent to the Titanic and one part of him would love a chance to visit it again. At the same time he realizes that there is no longer a reason to return and agrees with Ballard that it is time to let the Titanic rest in peace.

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