China’s deep sea manned submersible Jiaolong carried out the first dive on a mission to study active hydrothermal vent in the southwestern Indian Ocean on Jan. 2 to collect samples of hydrothermal fluid, sulfide, rocks, sediment and water. (Xinhua/Zhang Xudong)
China has been hitting all the checkboxes for their full-ocean manned submersible program; visiting the Mariana Trench, hydrothermal vents and engaging in other scientific and political pursuits. Not bad for a system less than five years old.
Meanwhile, America seems to be approaching deep-ocean exploration in the same fractured manner as space exploration.
First and foremost, robotics reign supreme… the era of sustained manned exploration seems over. Secondly, legacy systems continue operation well beyond the lifespan any designer would have originally concieved. Take DSV Alvin – she turned 50 last year, but rather than nearing the end of her operational lifespan, she’s been recently upgraded to the tune of $41 million dollars.
Next we have the private systems. Like Virgin Galactic, these are privately owned and operated submersibles. The most notable of these is DeepSea Challenger, James Cameron’s purpose-built submersible that recently plunged to the deepest part of the ocean. At a construction cost of just $8 million, she’s dwarfed by the expense of DSV Alvin’s refit alone. But then again, her voyage may have been a one-shot deal (more or less), and is unlikely to contribute even a fraction of what DSV Alvin has to our scientific understanding of the deep.
So what’s missing from this list? Just as we’ve allowed the Space Shuttle to retire without an adequate replacement, we do not have a modern, newly-imagined and designed method of exploring the deep at a state level. I think the debate of “should we?” gets a little boring… I want to ask “could we?” Could we still bring the same energy and intelligence to bear that created, utilized and maintained ingenious, record-breaking submersible designs?