Jacques Piccard

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Jacques Piccard

One of a remarkable family of record-setting explorer/scientists, Jacques Piccard (born 1922) is one of the fathers of marine exploration and a pioneer of ocean engineering.

Explorer Jacques Piccard comes from a family known for their daring achievements and has added to the family name through his own record-setting feats. In 1960, Piccard and a co-pilot took a vessel developed by Piccard's father to the deepest spot on earth, the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific, in a record seven-mile descent that has never been duplicated. He then went on to develop other submarines for research, salvage, and recreation. The Piccard family has the unique distinction of having made both the highest flight and the deepest dive of all time.

Jacques Ernest Jean Piccard was born July 28, 1922, in Brussels, Belgium. His career as an ocean engineer and explorer began with the aeronautical exploits of his father, Auguste, a physicist who became interested in balloons as a way of studying cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. In 1931, Auguste reached a record altitude of 50, 000 feet in a balloon equipped with the first pressurized cabin, becoming the first person to reach the stratosphere and return safely. Having developed a method for surviving the low pressures of the upper atmosphere, Auguste Piccard then turned to inventing a submersible device for withstanding the immense pressures of the deep ocean. The result was a bathyscaphe, a balloon-like vessel which used the same principles of buoyancy that governed balloon flight. On descent, lighter-than-water gasoline from an external flotation tank was released and replaced with seawater, which provided enough negative buoyancy to sink the vessel. To ascend, heavy ballast was released from the ballast tanks. The bathyscaphe was in effect a pressurized diving bell which was towed to its destination and then dropped.

Jacques Piccard began studying economics at the University of Geneva in 1943 but interrupted his studies to serve in the French First Army during World War II. He then taught at the University of Geneva while continuing to help his father improve the bathyscaphe and demonstrate its potential for operating in deep waters. The first working model was built with money from a Belgian scientific foundation in 1948. After a successful unmanned trial descent to 4, 600 feet, it was damaged in heavy seas and had to be redesigned. Another was built in 1953 and purchased by the French Navy. At the request of the city of Trieste, Italy, a third vessel was built in 1954 and taken by the Piccards to a record depth of 10, 355 feet in the Mediterranean off the island of Ponza, Italy. With this success, the younger Piccard abandoned economics to collaborate with his father on further improving the bathyscaphe and demonstrating its practicality for exploration and research.

In 1956, Piccard sought outside financial support from the U.S. Navy, which was exploring the potential uses of submersibles like the bathyscaphe in underwater research. He was invited to bring the vessel, now named Trieste, to San Diego to work with scientists there on the biological and acoustical properties of deep scattering layers, areas of sound reflection that seemed to vary at different depths and in different lighting conditions. Two years later, the Navy bought the vessel and hired Piccard as a consultant. Recognizing the strategic value of a workable submersible for submarine salvage and rescue, the Navy began testing Triesteat greater and greater depths. In her first 17 months as a naval vessel, the Trieste made 22 descents and broke three depth records.

Following a successful descent to 24, 000 feet, Piccard and his colleagues planned an even greater challenge-a voyage to the bottom of the sea. Early on January 23, 1960, Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh, a submarine officer, boarded the vessel in rough seas near Guam and began a descent to 36, 000 feet in a chasm of the Marianas Trench known as Challenger Deep. The bathyscaphe carried no equipment and planned no experiments; the mission's purpose was merely to prove that the depth could be reached. The descent progressed without incident until 30, 000 feet, when the crew heard a loud crack. They continued the dive, however, finally touching down in "snuff-colored ooze" at 35, 800 feet. To Walsh, the experience was like "being in a big bowl of milk."

When they finally settled on the featureless seabed, they saw a flat fish as well as a new type of shrimp. Marine biologists later disputed their observations, claiming that no fish could survive the 17, 000 psi pressure at such depths. After discovering cracks in the viewing windows, Piccard cut the voyage short. After a 20-minute stay on the bottom, they began dumping ballast for their return to the surface, and the damaged vessel returned to its escort ships without incident.

The historic dive received worldwide attention, and Piccard wrote an account of it, Seven Miles Down, with Robert Deitz, a renowned geologist who had help plan the mission. A planned return expedition, however, never occurred. The Trieste was expensive to maintain and operate. It was incapable of collecting samples and could not take photographs and so had little scientific data to show for its voyages. The original vessel was retired in 1961, although a rebuilt version later located the lost remains of two lost nuclear submarines, Thresher and Scorpion.

Following the success of the bathyscaphe, Auguste and Jacques then began developing a "mesoscaphe"-a ship that could operate at depths of up to 2, 000 feet. Piccard envisioned it as a tourist submarine, and the first mesoscaphe, Auguste Piccard, carried more than 30, 000 passengers into Lake Geneva at the Swiss National Exhibition in 1964-65. Working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Piccard then developed a second vessel, the Ben Franklin, for the Gulf Stream Mission, which studied the physical and biological features of the Gulf Stream on its month-long voyage from Florida to Nova Scotia in 1969. His account of that voyage was published in The Sun Beneath the Sea.

During the 1970's, Piccard formed the Foundation for the Study and Preservation of Seas and Lakes and began warning about the dangers of pollution and overfishing. His new submersibles included Forel, launched in 1979, which made more than 700 dives in European lakes for scientific, industrial, and recovery missions. Although he continued his research for governments, universities, and the police, his efforts in later years included developing passenger vessels. He developed more than 40 innovative designs for commercial sightseeing submersibles, of which half a dozen were built. Piccard also became a founder of the Exploration Society of America, an international travel group.

Piccard wrote in 1961: "That man is headed for ultimate adventure at the basement of earth, there is no doubt at all." Today he acknowledges that he expected too much in the 1960's. Political attention and funding were soon diverted from ocean exploration to the space race, and the benefits of deep-sea expeditions were not believed to offset their enormous costs. He remains optimistic, however, that a new generation of deep-sea exploration technology may enable humans to return to the Challenger Deep: "We opened the door, and now we must go and see what's behind the door." The Japanese unmanned submersible Kaiko approached Piccard's depth record in another part of the Marianas Trench in 1995, and several international efforts are in progress to take innovative new manned craft to the Challenger Deep before the end of the century.

Piccard continues to develop and build submersibles, partly as a way of increasing awareness of environmental threats to the world's seas. "For me, " he says, " the more people discover the sea, the greater the chance of bringing marine issues into public view and the better off we will all be." In 1996, he expressed a concern that the sea is now severely endangered and can only be saved by widescale changes in attitudes toward overfishing and pollution. Meanwhile, the Piccard family legacy of adventure and exploration is being continued by his son Bertrand, who received international attention in 1997-98 for his participation in several team attempts to circle the globe by balloon. The family was also featured in a 1997 public television series, "The Adventurers." Piccard lives in Cully, Switzerland.

Further Reading

Baker, Daniel B., editor, Explorers and Discovers of the World, Gale, 1993.

Piccard, Jacques, and Robert Dietz, Seven Miles Down: The Story of the Bathyscaphe Trieste, Putnam, 1961.

Piccard, Jacques, The Sun Beneath the Sea, Scribner, 1971.

Japan 21st, October 1996.

Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1989.

National Geographic, July 1960.

New York Times, August 20, 1969; June 17, 1971; June 23, 1991.

Newsweek, July 5, 1993.

Oceanus, winter 1988-89.

San Diego Tribune, May 19, 1984.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 1995.

Time, August 14, 1995.

Times Newspapers, June 14, 1990.

"The Piccards: To the Ends of the Earth, " The Adventurers,http://www.pbsonline.org (March 24, 1998).

"The Abyss, " Dateline, NBC News Transcripts, September 12, 1997.

"Deep Flight: What Is It?, " http://www.deepflight.com (March 23, 1998).

"RV Trieste, " Historic Naval Ships Visitors Guide,http://www.maritime.org (March 27, 1998).

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