Most of the media coverage dwelled on the image of NASA women in wetsuits and bikinis…


Pierre Mion

From Triple Canopy:

The first Tektite mission, in 1969, comprised four men and was submerged for two months. In exchange for the opportunity to study marine ethology and ecological systems from a two-chamber capsule fifty feet below the surface of the sea, perched atop a dynamic reef system, the aquanauts were themselves transformed into objects of rigorous scientific study. Medical tests included sleep studies and the endless drawing of blood samples, which confirmed that humans could dwell underwater for extended periods of time without adversely impacting their circulatory and nervous systems. The second iteration of Tektite, in 1970, was more directly focused on psychological and social observation; to generate more data, the mission was divided into a series of submersions of two to three weeks. Since the habitat maintained the same barometric pressure as the adjacent ocean—a condition known as saturation diving—the aquanauts were able to carry out experiments that would have otherwise been impossible: They dove freely, spending hours a day in SCUBA gear conducting research, without ever having to decompress. But the environment was also isolating, as aquanauts knew they would have to spend twenty hours in a decompression chamber before surfacing. So at the end of each day they gathered in their habitat and relaxed, cooked, talked, listened to music, watched television, played guitar, and finally slept.

Tektite began with fanfare comparable to a Cape Canaveral shuttle launch, with press conferences and VIP excursions to the rustic base camp for Congressmen, scientists, and foreign dignitaries. “Splashdowns,” “splashups,” and other milestones were covered by the New York Times, and the aquanauts were featured in Popular Science and other magazines. Aquanauts may have been minor celebrities compared with their space-bound counterparts, but the narrative was the same: heroic explorers braving extreme environments. There was also a cavalcade of records, including the first long-term scientific mission in the sea, longest saturation dive, largest study of social behavior in an isolated habitat, first NASA mission to include women, and only mission with an all-female crew.

As the scope of the Tektite research program expanded with its second mission, NASA directors placed a call for proposals in leading scientific journals. At the time, Sylvia Earle was a promising oceanographer in her early thirties. Knowing that NASA was deeply concerned about the potential impropriety of a mixed-gender crew, Earle assembled a five-woman team of biologists, oceanographers, and engineers from the Scripps Institute and other leading academies. By this time NASA was facing considerable public criticism over the homogeneity of its spaceflight crews, and the agency decided to trade in the potential spectacle of a mixed-gender crew for that of an all-female crew. The mission, which took place in July 1970, generated countless photo ops and press conferences, arguably drawing more attention than any of Tektite’s scientific achievements. Aquanaut Alina Szmant, now a professor of marine science at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, recalls that Tektite directors had to place a press embargo on the mission after the first two days, so that the scientists could actually do some research. While most of the media coverage dwelled on the curious image of NASA women in wetsuits and bikinis (many newspapers incorrectly referred to the scientists as “aquanettes”), the habitability researchers noticed that the crew experienced fewer interpersonal conflicts and accomplished more than did their male counterparts.

Pierre Mion

“Tektite Revisited”, James Merle Thomas and Meghan O’Hara, Triple Canopy