1974 - Project FAMOUS

The birth of a project

Two years after humans landed on the moon, the time had come to try to send humans to the seafloor. In 1971, Xavier Le Pichon, head of the French Centre National pour l’Exploitation des Oceans (CNEXO) wrote a letter to Woods Hole geologist Ken Emery and proposed a joint U.S.-French expedition to explore the Mid-Ocean Ridge with human-occupied submersibles.

Few research submersibles existed at the time. The French had the 200-ton bathyscaphe Archimède and were building a smaller “diving saucer” called Cyana. The U.S. had the Navy-owned, 15-ton Alvin, developed by engineers at Woods Hole. Alvin was only seven years old and still being tested to see what it could do.

Robert Ballard, Emery’s protege, replied enthusiastically to the idea for a joint French-American expedition to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. But it needed support and funding from U.S. earth scientists.

Were submersibles worth the expense?

In 1972, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting of international earth scientists at Princeton University to discuss the proposed expedition. At the time, many scientists had doubts about how useful submersibles might be. The new submersibles had not really been fully tested in the field. Could they withstand the difficulties of deep-sea work? The submersibles also could not cover much ground in the dark depths. Would the information they collected be worth the big price to operate them? Many scientists preferred to devote limited funding to other research pursuits.

In the end, the major decision-makers in the community of oceanographers agreed to fund a research program that was called Project FAMOUS (French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study). As the meeting came to a close, Maurice Ewing, one of the giants of oceanography, wagged his finger in Bob Ballard’s face. If you fail, Ewing told Ballard, we’ll melt down Alvin’s pressure sphere into titanium paper clips.

A full-scale effort to lay the groundwork

“The preliminary work (for Project FAMOUS) resembled the kind of planning, detailed study, simulation, and training that goes on before a major space mission,” wrote Bob Ballard in his book The Eternal Darkness (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Alvin’s steel sphere, which enclosed its human occupants, was replaced with a titanium sphere in 1973. It could withstand twice as much pressure and extended Alvin’s diving range from 6,000 to 12,000 feet. Pilots and scientists received special diving training.

The target area for Project FAMOUS was about 9,000 feet deep on a section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, between 36°N and 37°N, nearly 400 miles southwest of the Azores Islands. Starting in 1972, “an aircraft carrying a magnetic sensor flew over this region of the ocean,” James R. Heirtzler of Woods Hole, the U.S. leader of Project FAMOUS, wrote in National Geographic magazine. “The sea floor was remapped by normal research ship echo-sounders. Then narrow-beam echo sounders on U.S. Navy and French hydrographic ships refined the bottom charts. Britain’s R.R.S. Discovery brought a seven-ton side-scan sonar system dubbed ‘Gloria’ and Scripps Institution of Oceanography provided the Deep-Tow mapping system.”

Scientists aboard ships conducting preliminary work for Project FAMOUS also used floating sonobuoys and instruments lowered to the seafloor to detect sound waves from earthquakes. Sound waves recorded by these devices revealed the hidden structure of rock layers in the ocean crust below the seafloor.

New tools for an historic mission

For this historic expedition, the U.S. Navy mapped the FAMOUS target area with its powerful and top-secret Sonar Array Survey System (SASS)—the first time oceanographers gained access to such detailed seafloor bathymetry data.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory also sent out the U.S.N.S. Mizar with LIBEC (LIght BEhind Camera), a deep-sea photography system built after the submarine Thresher’s tragic sinking. LIBEC suspended high-intensity electronic flash lamps well above the ocean bottom, making it possible to shoot 120-foot-wide sections of the seafloor.

Woods Hole built a deep-towed camera sled called ANGUS (Acoustic Navigated Geological Undersea Surveyor) specifically for Project FAMOUS.

LIBEC collected 5,250 seafloor photos, which were fitted together and laid across the floor of a Navy gymnasium in Washington, D.C. Scientists wandered over the giant jigsaw puzzle of photos to get their first glimpse of conditions they would encounter on the seafloor.

In the summer of 1973, Archimède made seven reconnaissance dives to the ridge, bringing back rock samples and close-up photographs. Project FAMOUS was ready to go.

Down to the seafloor in submersibles

In June of 1974, the FAMOUS fleet met in the Azores. Archimède was towed by the French ship Marcel le Bihan. Cyana was on the deck of Le Noirot. Alvin (named after its early champion, WHOI scientist Allyn Vine) was aboard its mother ship R/V Lulu (named after Vine’s mother). Woods Hole’s R/V Knorr towed R/V Lulu. In position to drill a core of the seafloor was D/V Glomar Challenger, a converted oil drilling ship recently commissioned by the National Science Foundation for the Deep Sea Drilling Project.

For the first time in history, scientists descended to the bottom of the sea to explore a mid-ocean ridge. They descended between the steep, 5,000-foot ridge flanks into a rift valley as deep as the Grand Canyon. They saw for the first time the narrow zone where magma oozed through seafloor cracks, paving the seafloor with lava and creating new crust—and by this process, spreading the North American and European tectonic plates apart.

Alvin made 17 dives and spent 81 hours on the seafloor. Archimède and Cyana completed 27 dives. Scientists used these submersibles to collect 100,000 photos and 3,000 pounds of rock samples, including evidence of manganese and iron deposits. They proved that submersibles could effectively explore the dark, tortuous, volcanic seafloor. They gave geologists the ability to investigate and map unknown terrain on the seafloor—much the way geologists always did on land.

The explorers discovered vast fields of seafloor lava, but they found no evidence of hydrothermal vents.

Stuck at the bottom of the sea!

Where were the hydrothermal vents that scientists had predicted they would find on the seafloor? Project FAMOUS continued searching during its second year of operation.

In the summer of 1975, Alvin dove with scientists Bill Bryan of Woods Hole and Jim Moore of the U.S. Geological Survey aboard. The pilot was Jack Donnelly.

The seafloor they drove over had many wide cracks, including a fissure that was wider than Alvin. They could not resist going into it. They proceeded slowly, at the pace of a leisurely walk, with Alvin casting its lights only a short distance into the darkness. They could not tell that the fissure walls were narrowing. Suddenly, Alvin was wedged in the crack.

Donnelly’s initial attempts to maneuver Alvin out of its tight spot failed. No one could come to the rescue.

“It was a really spooky feeling,” Bryan said in Victoria Kaharl’s book Water Baby: The Story of Alvin (Oxford University Press, 1990). “We would go up maybe half a meter and feel the sub bump against something. Jack tried everything up, forward, back, and we hit something each time, not knowing what it was. It was as if somebody put a big lid over us.”

But Bryan and Moore had taken careful notes of their movements as Alvin entered the crevasse, Kaharl reported. White particles flowing in the water gave them a clue about how Alvin probably drifted in the current. Donnelly essentially “retraced his steps” backwards to get out.

“We’re clear and underway again,” Donnelly announced from the depths. To the amazement of everyone on the ships, he did not rush to surface. Instead he continued the mission.

Alvin never tried to enter a fissure again, and Project FAMOUS never found a hydrothermal vent.

Related Interview:

Robert Ballard, from the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT, discusses the lead-up to the FAMOUS expedition.

See more interviews »





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