The Ben Franklin Sails Again
By Christopher Pollon


The 132-tonne metallic capsule has languished for months on the lawn of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, surrounded on all sides by its filthy, rust-eaten appendages.

Recently donated to the Museum, the oddity in question is the Ben Franklin, the largest deep-sea research submarine ever built. Credited with charting the Gulf Stream, it helped revolutionize 1960s ocean research and space exploration. The submarine’s record-shattering 1969 dive influenced the design of Apollo missions and space stations, and continues to guide NASA scientists as they devise a manned flight to Mars.

By September, the Vancouver Maritime Museum will reassemble and launch the Ben Franklin as the world’s only interactive submersible exhibit. By restoring the original instruments and installing computers onboard, guests will take the submarine on simulated deep sea and space missions without leaving the lawn.

"When you go in that sub, there’s a magic, an understanding," says VMM Executive Director Jim Delgado. "It’s a great laboratory, and it’s a great classroom in its own right. The Ben Franklin is in many ways a moment frozen in time -- when you go in there, it’s still 1968."

Returning to that frozen moment – perhaps closer to 1965 -- is necessary to understand how and why the Ben Franklin came to exist. In the mid-Sixties, a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism was focused on the potential of earth’s inner space. The world’s oceans, covering 70% of the world’s surface, were seen as a panacea for the ills of mankind: an untapped source of mineral wealth, new medicines, food and information about the past. Scientists realized that the deep ocean was not a lifeless void, but a diverse environment teeming with abundant life at all levels. It was an environment they were eager to discover.

Up to this point, most deep sea research was conducted from the surface by dropping instruments overboard or netting deep sea creatures. The research submersibles of the day were often tiny, cramped vehicles which could stay submerged for only several hours – hardly long enough to make accurate observations and measurements of currents, vast stretches of ocean floor and sea life.

Exploration of the deep sea and deep space were closely tied together during this time. The ocean was considered a logical testing ground for spacecraft design, life-support systems and the psychological stresses of enclosed artificial environments. Indeed, before the impact of the Apollo 11 moon landings in 1969, it was the ocean – not outer space – which was widely hailed as the final frontier.

In 1965, Swiss physicist and submersible expert Jacques Picard received funding from Gruman, a US-based NASA contractor, to begin work on an unusual submarine. Conceived to comfortably fit a crew of six, its principle feature was a life support system modeled after those used in spacecraft. Capable of providing clean breathable air for weeks at a time, the PX-15 (its original name) could stay submerged for up to 42 days. In many ways, Picard had designed a spacecraft to explore the inner space of Earth.

When it was completed in 1968, the PX-15 was the largest research submersible ever built: it was almost 15 meters long, weighing 132 metric tonnes. The 3.4 cm steel plate hull was reinforced by cylindrical rings set against the inside, possessing a yield strength of 5625 kg/cm. Electrical power was provided by lead-acid batteries housed in the keel of the sub. Embedded throughout the hull were 29 separate Plexiglas viewports, allowing observation from all areas of the interior. Capable of a maximum operational depth of just over 600 metres, the sub was equipped with bunk beds, a galley, wardroom and lockers.

Picard designed his new submersible with a single mission in mind: the exploration of the Gulf Stream. Like a surging deep-sea river, the Gulf Stream’s powerful current pushes life-sustaining temperatures out of the Gulf of Mexico to the coasts of North America and Europe. Up to this point, nobody had tried to study the Stream from within; Picard intended to drop the PX-15 into the middle of the Stream and let it drift up the continent without engine power. Naming his sub after the American patriot who discovered the stream, Picard planned to observe sea life and conduct oceanographic studies and measurements along the way.

After several practice dives and technical modifications, the Ben Franklin was towed by ship to the high-velocity center of the Stream off the coast of Palm Beach Florida. The date was July 14, 1969. While one man piloted the vessel, the rest of the crew – including several oceanographers and a NASA observer – went about studying the ocean and onboard conditions.

NASA had taken a keen interest in the drift dive from its inception. Space Agency observers were present months before the launch, familiarizing themselves with every detail of the submarine. During the course of the dive, NASA conducted exhaustive analysis of virtually every aspect of onboard life: they measured sleep quality and patterns, sense of humour and behavioural shifts, physical reflexes and the effect of long-term routine on the crew. Timed cameras were installed all over the ship to take photos every 30 seconds, capturing all human interaction. Many of the tests and results are fascinating not for the data they yielded, but for the meticulousness of the NASA analysis. For instance, NASA generated hundreds of pages of tables and statistics on events surrounding routine sub maintenance, which were classified by subject, importance, chance of recurrence and foreseen consequences on future space missions.

NASA took a special interest in microbiology – the quantity and growth of bacilli and microbes – within the enclosed environment of the Ben Franklin. Five areas were routinely and painstakingly inspected: the crew’s bodies, clothing, food, drinking water and the interior living space.

In his mission memoir The Sun Beneath the Sea, sub creator Jacques Picard describes the value of microbiology to NASA: "One of the voyages planned for…Mars envisages a journey of about four hundred days. If a serious epidemic developed in the neighborhood of Mars, the crew would have to ‘hold out’ for at least six months before returning to earth." It was critical for NASA to learn as much as it could about the behaviour of germs and bacteria during Ben Franklin mission, because astronauts would face similar conditions in space. It was considered significant when five of six crew members caught a cold during the mission; although the infection did not last more than 48 hours, it spread quickly throughout the enclosed atmosphere. Their water supply quickly became contaminated by bacteria, forcing them to drink hot water intended for bathing. Details of this nature guided the design of the first Skylab spacestation soon after. Thirty-one years later, NASA’s classified five-volume report "Use of the Ben Franklin as a Space Station Analog" continues to influence the development of the Space Shuttle program and manned missions to Mars planned for after 2020.

The drift mission provided the first opportunity to observe Gulf Stream life at the middle depths. Don Kazamir was a 35-year-old ex-US Navy submarine commander when he responded to Gruman’s New York Times ad for a skipper. His love of Jules Verne and 20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea attracted him to the mission immediately.

"The outside lights would attract sea creatures like bugs to a streetlight," he said from his home in Florida. "(We saw) sharks, schools of tuna, salp chains, lots of squid and zooplankton." Kazamir recalls being woken up at 5:30 a.m. by attacking 1.5-metre swordfish ramming their beaks against the Ben Franklin’s steel hull. This was the second recorded swordfish attack on a deep ocean submersible, which was of great interest to the scientists on board. In the first incident, an attacking swordfish got stuck to the US Navy submersible Alvin, and was promptly barbecued and eaten by the crew upon ascent.

Compared to his experiences on Navy submarines, Kazamir considered the Ben Franklin a "luxury palace." During the month long dive, he recalls finding innovative ways of passing the time. "I brought a dartboard – we’d play darts, which is something Skylab copied by substituting Velcro balls," he said. "After a long day of cold, I brought along little medicinal bottles of bourbon and scotch, which helped a lot. Jacques (Picard) never knew about it – I don’t think he would have approved." The onboard musical playlist included Rossini, Mozart, and the Beatles Yellow Submarine.

During the 30 day drift, the Ben Franklin was carried by the powerful river-in-the-sea more than 2413 kilometres, finally submerging off the coast of Maine. During this time, more than five million pieces of acoustic, biological and lighting experiments were recorded. The many cameras on board provided NASA with 50 000 usable images of crew life in a confined space.

There was only one tense moment during the mission. A hurricane was projected to appear at the very location of Ben Franklin’s ascent; at the same time, carbon monoxide levels were building towards the end of the drift. Do they surface to get air in the eye of a hurricane, or stay safely submerged and breathe potentially unsafe levels of CO? After heated exchanges between Ben Franklin and mission control, they decided to stay down. Soon after the decision was made, the hurricane took off in another direction, and the CO levels were confirmed to be safe.

The anticlimax of mission’s end was profound: while the Ben Franklin completed its drift, President Nixon and 1440 dignitaries staged a elaborate party for the returning Apollo 11 astronauts. The New York Times headline of August 14 1969 proclaims "From Coast to Coast: a Joyous Welcome for the Astronauts!" No mention of the Ben Franklin’s record-breaking Gulf Stream mission appeared that day.

Unfortunately for Ben Franklin, this cool reception was a grim indicator of change to come. The dramatic success of the Apollo moon landing shifted world interest away from the ocean and towards outer space.

"Deep ocean exploration was ultimately scooped in its entirety by the push for space," says Jim Delgado, the author of numerous books on ocean research. "That, combined with the superpowers engaging in Cold War spook games and high seas espionage also [contributed]." Increasingly, the scientific discoveries made in the deep ocean – in the fields such as acoustics – became closely guarded Cold War secrets, used in the desperate race to build better and better nuclear submarines and weapons.

With more attention focused on the push for space, deep ocean research was increasingly starved of interest and funds. Vancouver pioneer sub designer Al Trice, who designed the world-famous Pisces II commercial submarine in the late 60s, blames the decline on money and impracticality in sub design.

"Millions were spent on space, but nobody put any money into ocean science [after Apollo 11]" he says. "There just wasn’t a viable market. They couldn’t build a viable sub for research in the ocean…the existing subs were too complicated and too expensive, so the whole thing failed."

Problems in cost and design were especially relevant to the Ben Franklin. Its’ enormous size rendered it financially impractical for commercial ocean work: moving the sub was troublesome, as it had to be towed behind a ship, whereas smaller subs that could be carried onboard. The submarine’s need for support vessels on the surface during missions contributed to the costs of using the Ben Franklin for ocean research work.

"To this very day, deep sea science hasn’t worked out," says Trice. Today’s deep sea research is being stimulated only in areas that yield a return on the investment -- the most immediate being the offshore oil industry. "They’re looking deeper and deeper in the sea for oil, and for that they will have to do more ocean research, examining temperature, salinity, currents," he says. Trice also points to the world’s declining stocks of surface fish as another financial incentive to learn more about the deep ocean.

The submersibles that will conduct this new age of research will be vastly different than the Ben Franklin. Modern manned subs – such as France’s Nautile, or Russia’s Mir 2 – can dive to depths of over 6000 metres. Nautile was used to salvage artifacts from the Titanic in 1987 and 1994, and the Mir 2 was used to film the Titanic for IMAX and James Cameron.

Trice says a boost for modern deep ocean science has been the end of the Cold War. "A tremendous amount of ocean study was done for the Cold War, especially regarding submarine warfare. Some of that is now getting released into the real world."

Even if the pioneering research of the Ben Franklin is brought to greater light, few outside of oceanographic circles will probably take notice. Indeed, the Ben Franklin has been forgotten because it contributed good solid science – which was immensely useful to scientists and astronauts, but not very newsworthy to the rest of the world.

In 1971, Chicago-based businessman John Horton bought the underemployed Ben Franklin for $51 000 from Gruman. It was shipped to Vancouver, where Horton hoped to modify Ben Franklin’s design to make her more suitable for commercial ocean work. He never realized this plan: since 1971, the sub has sat unused in storage, most recently outside the Vancouver Shipyards on the North Shore. When the shipyards suggested moving the Ben Franklin to the dump, Horton donated the dilapidated vessel to Delgado and the Maritime Museum.

"While things didn’t work out for Horton, things did work out for history," says Delgado. "Because the Ben Franklin was never modified or changed, things have essentially remained as she was designed."

This summer, the VMM plans to construct a classroom/mission control building adjacent to the museum. By electronically connecting mission control to the sub, students will interact with the Ben Franklin much like it did in 1969.

The Museum is currently negotiating to acquire Al Trice’s original Pisces II, as well as the Vancouver-built tourist-passenger sub The Atlantis. With the Pisces II in storage in Florida, they are still trying to determine whether such an acquisition is possible. Their hope is to add several BC-designed submarines to the exhibit, promoting Vancouver’s status as a world centre for submersible technology.

As preparations for a late summer Ben Franklin launch continue, response from corporate sponsors has been overwhelming: Home Depot will donate wood and build a deck to access the sub; Cloverdale Paints will provide a free coat of white anti-graffiti paint; the UBC School of Architecture will hold a contest for the best mission control structure. A large group of volunteers has come forward to reassemble the sub, including engineers, carpenters and grunt labourers.

Even in its currently dilapidated state, the Ben Franklin is already drawing intense interest from the general public. In mid-April, vandals cut through a series of locks and pried open one of the hatches. Far from sounding upset about it, Jim Delgado seemed to sympathize with their impatience to preview the exhibit.

"Whenever we are working on the Ben Franklin, people constantly come by and ask us about it. It’s a fascination people have – they’re dying to get in and see it."