Blaine man pushed himself to the edge to aid in mankind’s quest for exploration

Blaine resident Richard Blackburn was a part of the Sealab program, which helped create saturation diving and allow divers to work near the ocean’s floor. The program will be profiled on PBS Tuesday night.
Blaine resident Richard Blackburn was a part of the Sealab program, which helped create saturation diving and allow divers to work near the ocean’s floor. The program will be profiled on PBS Tuesday night. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Blaine resident Richard Blackburn admits that after nearly 50 years, it’s not a time in his life he talks about all that much.

“It’s difficult to talk about,” Blackburn said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald last month. “It’s not fun recalling what happened, because those are memories I really don’t need.”

But recalling them is exactly what Blackburn was asked to do, when producers approached him two years ago with the idea of doing a TV special on one the hardest things he’s gone through in his life.

“In retrospect, it probably helped to talk about it,” Blackburn said. “It was good to recall and think about what happened. I hope it helps people learn about what we did and what we accomplished.”

They’ll get their chance to learn at 9 p.m. Tuesday, when PBS debuts “American Experience: Sealab.” The show was originally scheduled to show last week, but the rescheduled State of the Union address forced PBS to push it back a week.

While most Americans know about astronauts and either lived through or learned about their exploits in space, America’s “aquanauts” remain in relative obscurity.

Actually, Blackburn said they disliked the term — “We preferred saturation divers,” he said.

And just like astronauts, saturation divers risked their lives to push themselves and their equipment to the edge to help further knowledge and mankind’s quest for exploration and understanding.

“Everything we did was on the experimental edge,” Blackburn told The Herald. “But what we learned was amazing. So many things that are still used today started with what we learned.”

Before Sealab, divers were limited in what they could accomplish underwater by near total blackness, freezing water temperatures and intense pressure that could disorient their minds and crush their bodies, according to an American Experience press release announcing the episode.

Amid high Cold War tensions in 1963, the United States was determined to match the Soviets’ dominance in submarine warfare, but when the U.S.S. Thresher developed mechanical problems and sank beneath more than 8,000 feet of water, crushing its hull, improving the ability to dive at lower depths became paramount.

That’s when the work of George Bond, a naval pioneer who dreamed of pushing the limits of diving, became a priority, the release said.

Bond was researching how to counteract the dangerous effects of atmospheric pressure underwater, which compresses air and can create a toxic level of oxygen in a diver’s blood and dangerous nitrogen levels. Equally dangerous were the fatal cramps known as the bends a diver can experience from swimming from deep depths to the surface too quickly.

Bond and his team pioneered Sealab, allowing divers to remain and live undersea for long periods of time in a controlled habitat and re-emerge unscathed.

“Captain Bond was the father of saturation diving,” Blackburn said. “He was a pioneer, and we really helped him prove that it was possible.”

Sealab I, which was manned by five saturation divers including former astronaut Scott Carpenter, was lowered to the ocean floor July 20, 1964, near Bermuda. After 10 days working outside the lab and living inside it, the divers surfaced unharmed, prompting Bond and his team to try pushing the limits even more.

A year later, Sealab II was launched in deeper and colder waters near La Jolla, Calif. Three teams of divers split 45 days more than 200 feet below the surface, with Carpenter setting the record by living underwater for 30 days.

Blackburn, an experienced U.S. Navy diver, was involved in the background testing apparatus used in the project for Sealabs I and II, and when work started for a third mission, he said he jumped at the chance.

“When it came time for Sealab III, I called up Captain Bond and said I was interested,” Blackburn told The Herald. “He said, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ and a week later, I was going to first-class diving school.”

Sealab III used the same habitat as Sealab II, but it was to be placed in water nearly three times as deep off the coast of San Clemente, Calif. It was lowered on Feb. 15, 1969, and Blackburn was selected to be a member of the first of five teams of nine to live in Sealab and work outside it.

“Everybody was excited,” Blackburn said. “We knew we had a tough job to do — tougher than anyone had done before — but being young and energetic, we thought we could conquer the world. We all wanted to be a part of the program, and we knew there were huge risks involved.”

Unfortunately, the gravity of those risks played out, as there were early problems for the first team trying to set up Sealab III and a harrowing 24-hour ordeal resulted in the death of saturation diver Berry Cannon before the saturation divers were even able to enter Sealab.

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Blaine resident Richard Blackburn was a part of the Sealab program, which helped create saturation diving and allow divers to work near the ocean’s floor. The program will be profiled on PBS Tuesday night. American Experience Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“We were all so cold and tired and stunned, we didn’t know how to feel,” Blackburn told The Herald. “It was really hard.”

Following Cannon’s death, the Sealab project was suspended and subsequently shut down in 1970.

“It was tough to see the program canceled like it was,” Blackburn said. “There was a lot of teamwork by a lot of people. A lot of hours spent, and definitely some hard times. I think we contributed a lot — things you still see in deep sea diving used today.”

Helping people understand the importance of the Sealab program is why Blackburn says he chose to dig through some difficult memories and discuss the experience for the special.

“I hope people who watch the show understand what Captain Bond meant to our country,” Blackburn said. “He was a great doctor with a great heart — the father of saturation diving and a great pioneer.

“I hope they get an appreciation not only for what we did, but what was done in a big picture sense. There were a lot of lesson from Sealab III that were learned and used in future special projects. I would hope that people get a sense of the effort that was put into Sealabs I, II and III.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.