Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • You're in a city 10,000 fathoms beneath the sea.

  • It's quite beautiful.

  • Living under the sea

  • isn't just Hollywood fantasy.

  • Requesting landing clearance, over.

  • Can we build an underwater city? Sure.

  • Whether we build them

  • to survive overpopulation or catastrophic climate change,

  • or to help scientists learn more about our planet.

  • It stands to reason

  • that we must push the boundaries

  • of ocean exploration so that we can bring back solutions.

  • The deep sea could teach us about our own origins

  • and if we can learn about how life originated here,

  • we might be able to learn something

  • about how life may have originated elsewhere.

  • We already know more

  • about the surface of the moon than the depths of our oceans.

  • In comparison to going to the moon

  • living underwater is not that complicated.

  • While our relationship with the ocean started

  • tens of thousands of years ago,

  • the technology that enabled humans to explore underwater

  • is relatively recent.

  • In 1943, a French Naval officer called Jacques Cousteau

  • invented the Aqualung, the precursor to scuba.

  • In his 1964 film "World Without Sun"

  • he explored the sea in his two-man submarine,

  • the Diving Saucer.

  • He'd park it in a garage,

  • which was part of his subaquatic village.

  • These men are the first oceanauts.

  • They are going to live down here for a month.

  • His team spent 30 days beneath the waves.

  • These sunken houses permit us to escape

  • many limitations of diving.

  • More habitats followed,

  • built by amateur enthusiasts as well as serious players,

  • such as the U.S. Navy and NASA.

  • The sea was the next frontier to be explored,

  • and there was interest from beyond the scientific community.

  • President Kennedy wrote to the U.S. Senate in 1961:

  • Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity.

  • Our very survival may hinge on it.

  • In the 1950s and '60s, that particular time period,

  • there's a historical context there

  • that makes underwater living particularly desirable.

  • So there are military applications,

  • and this is the birth of the offshore oil industry

  • and various underwater construction projects.

  • And then you also have a third reason,

  • which has perhaps less of an incentive,

  • and that's that marine biology is starting to develop.

  • What indeed are the limits

  • on flesh and blood beneath the waves?

  • Were people looking at the physiological effects

  • on the body, as opposed to say the scientific work

  • that could be done from those depths?

  • So one of the problems in underwater habitats

  • is that you have to change the gas mixture

  • that can be breathed safely at depth.

  • If you just breathe normal air that we breathe here,

  • or if you breathe pure oxygen,

  • it becomes toxic or you get nitrogen narcosis.

  • So they had to combine different types of gas

  • to breathe at pressure,

  • and they were breathing helium mixtures

  • and nitrogen mixtures,

  • which is why when you watch videos with these aquanauts,

  • they always have that high helium voice.

  • Ca va?

  • The seas remain largely unexplored

  • because of the limits of the human body.

  • We can only dive for a few hours.

  • Every breath of compressed air at depth

  • requires decompression after,

  • be it in a chamber,

  • or by slowly rising back up to the surface.

  • Without it, divers can develop decompression sickness,

  • also known as the bends, where nitrogen in your bloodstream

  • begins to bubble, damaging blood vessels

  • and blocking blood flow.

  • It's potentially lethal.

  • So living in an underwater habitat,

  • like Cousteau's aquanauts, the body stays saturated

  • with inert gases, enabling them to dive

  • and work without decompression.

  • If man need not return

  • to the surface periodically,

  • taking a long time to decompress

  • those potentially fatal bubbles within his body,

  • he can be infinitely more productive down below.

  • But one of the problems is that as soon as you have

  • your breathing, you're living in a helium atmosphere,

  • it is not very good for temperature control at all,

  • and if you're living in the ocean,

  • you can imagine it's quite cold.

  • So one of the problems that they had to figure out

  • how to adapt to is that the divers are constantly cold,

  • they're freezing in this helium atmosphere.

  • And then the other problem is that once you're staying

  • at depth for prolonged periods,

  • so unlike a submarine where you can go up,

  • purge the air, and go back down,

  • you have to develop some sort of air circulation system

  • that is purging CO2 constantly.

  • And that only really works well

  • if you can keep the humidity down.

  • If you're living in a metal container under the ocean,

  • it's difficult to keep the humidity down.

  • So controlling all of these atmospheric conditions

  • was one of the really big hurdles

  • for making it safe for people to live at depth.

  • A lot of these habitats came and went

  • in the '60s and '70s.

  • Can you give us some sense of the historical context?

  • In the 1960s and the 1970s,

  • this is when the space race is going on.

  • So there was this analog between the exploration

  • of inner space, the oceans and outer space

  • and already in the U.S., people in government,

  • at NASA and in the Navy were looking ahead

  • to future space exploration missions

  • and thinking that here underwater,

  • we have a perfect analog example

  • where we can already study how crews are gonna behave

  • in isolation in a small space,

  • over long periods of time.

  • So the Cold War is a really important context

  • for understanding this as well.

  • And the Russians were going into space

  • and there were a few Soviet habitats

  • but they never seemed like a viable,

  • real competition to the Americans.

  • So underwater competition between the Americans

  • and the Soviets played out with nuclear submarines

  • but not underwater habitats.

  • Nobody was colonizing the sea floor.

  • I think the technology was proven in the 1960s and '70s

  • but there were other reasons that it wasn't that useful

  • or proved to not be something that was necessary to do

  • for a long period of time.

  • The technology developed that allowed divers

  • to compress on shipboard instead, instead of at depth.

  • It will take two and one half hours

  • for their bodies to be equal to the same pressure

  • they will experience on the ocean floor.

  • So you could be compressed in a compression chamber

  • in a ship, then lowered in a capsule

  • while still under pressure,

  • exit the capsule, work on the oil head rig,

  • get back in the capsule and remain pressurized

  • at the surface.

  • And that technology did develop

  • out of all of these experiments with underwater habitats

  • but it sort of took the underwater habitats

  • out of the equation.

  • Scientists still see value in spending time under the sea.

  • What sort of questions are they trying to answer?

  • My wife is a marine microbiologist,

  • who's actually here if you want

  • to ask her questions about this.

  • Yeah, that'd be great.

  • All right.

  • Hi.

  • Hi.

  • I am a marine microbiologist,

  • mostly focusing on hydrothermal vents,

  • and I've been doing that for a while now.

  • And my advisor, my PhD advisor was the one

  • who first suggested that the origin of life

  • may have been at hydrothermal events.

  • Yeah. That's one of humanity's big questions, I guess.

  • So, you know, do you think those answers

  • could be at the bottom of the sea?

  • We like to think so.

  • The original idea basically was that hydrothermal vents

  • were kind of like a natural laboratory

  • because they're dominated by gradients.

  • So in the middle of a chimney, it's really hot,

  • it's water that can be up to 400 degrees Celsius,

  • and then two feet away,

  • the water's like two degrees Celsius, right?

  • So in between you have every temperature

  • you could possibly want for all kinds of reactions.

  • They're very hard to study

  • because they're at the bottom of the ocean,

  • thousands of meters deep,

  • and we can only really take samples

  • when we can get a ship out there.

  • If you had the opportunity to spend,

  • say a month underwater next to one of these vents,

  • from a scientific angle, would that be helpful?

  • Yeah, so there's, there's two answers there.

  • One is we do use submarines, so I have been there.

  • I've been in Alvin down to these vents

  • and being there in person is amazing

  • because you get a much better sense

  • of what the environment looks like

  • in a three-dimensional way.

  • Just being in that space I just felt like I had a much

  • better sense of what these habitats really look like

  • and how connected they are and whether microbes

  • and ingredients could flow from one vent to the next.

  • The thing that I would really value

  • whether I was present or not is just being able

  • to look at these things longitudinally over time.

  • Understanding how the microbes adapt over time

  • is something we really haven't addressed yet

  • and is something I'm working on right now

  • to try to understand better.

  • So I think there's a lot of value in that.

  • Now, whether I would need to be physically present

  • for that period of time is another question,

  • because I like bathrooms

  • and I like having food and sunlight, so maybe not.

  • We enjoy the adventure of going down there, but in the end,

  • we do want to sleep in a soft bed that's not cold and damp

  • at the end of the day.

  • The underwater habitats of the 20th century

  • have mostly been retired.

  • A couple still remain serving scientists,

  • but a focus on space exploration

  • and the rise of robotic technology has decreased the need

  • for humans to live beneath the waves.

  • But could there be a resurgence?

  • Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and an aquanaut,

  • explorer and conservationist in his own right,

  • spent 31 days underwater in 2014.

  • Can you give me a sense of the science

  • that can be achieved when you're underwater

  • for extended periods of time?

  • My team and I were able to execute

  • over three years' worth of equivalent science,

  • as opposed to being based from a ship above.

  • And that has a lot to do with the access

  • to the bottom world.

  • By being able to be based out of an underwater habitat,

  • it's a very unique platform, it's a very unique tool.

  • In the case of being saturated,

  • we could dive 10 to 12 hours, each of us, per day

  • to take advantage of that and to be able to do

  • much, much more research in a workday than you can

  • from the surface.

  • Additionally, as a human being,

  • being right on the ocean's final frontier,

  • you're able to do things that simply are not

  • as easily accessible from an ROV or an AUV or a submersible,

  • but there's still a human factor that needs to be integrated

  • into these kinds of exercises.

  • And with Mission 31,

  • we were able to use all sorts of laboratory equipment

  • that normally are relegated to a laboratory on land

  • and bring them back down to the bottom of the sea.

  • Fabien, you're raising money

  • for a new underwater habitat called Proteus.

  • How's it different from the ones before

  • and why do we need it now?