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Cocoa Beach
121 Scrub #1
121 Scrub #2

ASF Expedition 1

Dining under the sea with Astronaut Scott Carpenter
These photographs document ASF Expedition 1.
Photo Credits: Mine
Linn and Mary relax in the common area.
Linn and Mary relax in the common area of Jules' Undersea Lodge.
Scott documents our time under the sea.
Jules' depth guage.
Scott documents our time together under the sea.     Depth of the common area in the habitat.
Lexie and Linn listen intently to Scott's story.
Lexie and Linn listen intently one of Scott's stories.
The mer-chef in action.
Gourmet dining under the sea.
Jules' mer-chef in action.
Gourmet dining under the sea with Scott.
Our dinner guests prepare to depart.
A final confirmation of Okay before departure.
Our dinner guests prepare to depart. A final confirmation of Okay before heading up.
Living under the sea at Jules' Undersea Lodge.  A target date was set for our undersea adventurer.  It was to begin on Monday, April 19th, 2006.  This was the Monday following Easter Sunday.  That was a long time after our final scuba training pool session and I was concerned that our skills would not be as fresh as they should.

Mary called ahead to the Jules Verne Lodge to find out if we could come in early that weekend to finish our scuba certification before we were to dive with Scott Carpenter down to the lodge.   The manager at Jules, told us first that wasn't necessary and second they were really booked that weekend.

They would certify us after we were already underwater staying at the lodge.  Our open water certification would be like an EVA from the lodge.  I really wanted to be certified before hand, but the thought of this being like an EVA during our stay sounded romantic.

On Easter Sunday afternoon after hunting Easter eggs with the grand children, Mary, Lexie, and I flew to Miami, Florida.   We rented a car and drove from Miami down to Key Largo.  We arrived late at night in Key Largo and check into the Holiday Inn hotel.

The next morning I had an email from Linn, the Executive Director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.  The news was not good.  Linn told us that the water in the lagoon where Jules was located was terribly murky.  They were not sure if we would be able to dive down to it or not.

An alternative possibility was for us to snorkel over the Aquarius habitat where a crew of NASA astronauts was spending 14 days underwater.  This opportunity was offered by world renowned diver Bob Barth.  Bob had been a key member of all three of the US Navy Sealab teams.  Nobody knew diving as well as Bob.

Seeing Aquarius sounded great, but it would not replace my disappointment if I were to miss living underwater myself.  Eating dinner with Scott Carpenter under water was a big objective and just as big was living underwater for two days.

Linn suggested that we meet Scott and Bob for breakfast and discuss what we were going to do.  So as if my anxiety level was not already high enough just about diving, here we were with the distinct possibility of our mission to Jules Verne Lodge being canceled due to the visibility.

Scott, Bob, and Linn were seated at a table at the Holiday Inn restaurant.  They were already well into breakfast.  We were introduced to Scott and Bob and they asked us about our diving experience.  I felt like this was an evaluation, and got the feeling that Scott and particularly Bob were highly skeptical that we had enough experience for this dive to Jules.

As we ate and talked, the atmosphere seemed to relax somewhat.  Bob pulled out a bottle of ear medicine from his pocket.  He gave it to us and told us that was what they were using on Aquarius and it was excellent for keeping things like unwanted bacteria from growing in our ears.  I thought that was a wonderful gesture on Bob's behalf.

We were still debating whether or not the conditions would be too difficult for us to make it down to the lodge.  Suddenly, Bob stood up and announced that he had an idea and that he was going over to the lodge.  That was all he said before he excused himself from the table.

We had no idea what he was up to.  I secretly hoped that the world's most experienced and best diver had come up with a master plan that would see the successful completion of our intended mission.  Nobody knew exactly what was on Bob's mind.

We finished breakfast and it was decided that we would drive over to the lodge with Scott and Linn to check out the conditions and talk in person to the people managing the lodge.

We got in Linn’s SUV and on her iPod she started the song “Yellowbird”.  This was one of Scott Carpenter's all time favorite songs and he smiled when he heard it.  Scott then told us the story about how he and his wife were good friends with the singer who performed “Yellowbird”.

One time at a concert in Houston, a lady put a yellow canary in a cage up on stage for the singer to keep.   The singer of course had no way of traveling with this bird to his next concert site, so he gave the canary to the Carpenter's after the show.

Scott recounted how they got home late and placed the cage on the kitchen table and went to bed.  The next morning they awoke to find the cage was upset in the kitchen and all that was left of that poor canary were yellow feathers.  Apparently the family cat liked the canary even more than Scott liked the “Yellowbird” song.  It was really funny to hear Scott recount that story about the demise of the canary.

It was a short drive from the Holiday Inn hotel to the site of the Jules Verne Lodge.  We drove around back to a parking area that looked restricted.  Scott assured Linn that it was Okay to park there.  We walked around and appeared to enter the lodge complex through a back gate.  It didn't seem the way that normal guests and visitors should go, but we Scott as our guide we confidently continued on.

Scott pointed out what appeared to be a white diving bell of some sort.  He explained that this was the Personal Transfer Capsule that was used on Sealab III.  It was in this very capsule that Bob Barth and Barry Cannon made their ill-fated dive to Sealab III.  Cannon died during that dive do to improperly configured dive equipment and it was Bob Barth who recovered his body.

I didn't expect to actually see a piece of naval equipment that was used during the Sealab programs.  That was a big bonus for me.  Interacting with two famous Sealab divers and seeing an integral part of original Sealab equipment really put this adventure over the top.  Seeing the PTC was like seeing John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule for the first time.

We walked by the lagoon where the habitat rested.  The water lived up to its billing.  It was dark green and very dark and foreboding. We were introduced to the Rick the manager of the Jules complex.  He assured us that there would be no problem getting us down to the lodge.  We weren't quite convinced.

Bob Barth came over and asked Lexie to follow him.  Lexie looked at me skeptically and I nodded that she should go with Bob.  Bob took Lexie to show her and iguana swimming in the lagoon.  Unfortunately, the iguana had disappeared by the time they got there, but I appreciated Bob for being so thoughtful.

We discussed the situation with Rick around an outdoor elevated table.  The table looked like it would have been more at home at a Tiki bar than it did being at the office for the lodge.  The plan was set.  Scott would stay at the Jules Verne complex and conduct a warm up dive to re-acclimate himself to diving.  It had been some time since Scott's last dive.

Linn, Mary, Lexie, and I would head back to the hotel.  At 3:00 PM, Mary, Lexie, and I were to be back at the lodge for taking care of our pre-dive paperwork and receiving our pre-dive instruction.

As we walked away from the Jules office, Bob Barth turned to me to comment about our upcoming dive.  What Bob told me was that some of his best dives were in really murky water.  He said that it's a great feeling when you see the whiteness of the habitat pop out of the darkness when you approach it.  I appreciated Bob's comments. I'm sure it was obvious to him that I had a lot of anxiety about this dive.  Like a good mentor, his words were very comforting to me.

Linn, Mary, Lexie, and I wound up at a dive restaurant near the Holiday Inn for lunch.  This joint had no pretense of being a 5 star restaurant.  The lady who waited appeared as salty as any veteran sea captain.  The food was adequate and the view was nice so we overlooked the slow service.

You're not supposed to drink before you go diving, but Linn, Mary, and I figured that one drink wouldn't hurt us.  A glass of wine to steady the nerves seemed appropriate at the time.

Before long, it was time for us to head back over to the Jules Verne complex.  We packed our masks, snorkels, fins and the items that we would take down with us to the habitat.  If all went well, we would be leaving the world that we knew for two days.

When we got to the Jules complex, we were introduced to Les.  He was to be our Jules mission director and our certified PADI dive instructor.  Les was the man assigned to take us through our open water dive certification.

Les is originally from England and has lived in Australia for some time as well as other parts of the world.  As such, he has a definite accent when he speaks.  Les was rather upset when he found out that we were not already certified divers.

Les's reaction to our experience level only did more to raise my anxiety level.  It also raised my ire.  Here we were told for months that it would be no problem to certify us after we were down inside of the habitat.  Do these people have no idea what they are talking about?  There was an apparent lack of communication between Rick and Les and I was not pleased about that.

We were taken into a small conference room and given some paperwork to fill out liability waivers and that sort of thing.  Teresa, another employee of the Jules complex, also provided us with water and told us to drink plenty of water to combat the dehydration that would come from the dry air in the habitat.

After we filled out the paperwork, Rick came in.  He told us, “We did not have to do this. We could stop now, if we wanted to.”  Great, here is “Mr. No Problem” now telling us to stop.  Well Okay, he didn't tell us to stop, but it's not a comment that boosted my already fragile confidence.

There is a saying that “A chicken is interested in breakfast, but a pig is committed.”  Having finished signing the release forms, we were now committed.  Rick brought us wet suits, BCs, and the other equipment we would need for our dive to Jules.

Les then took us along with Scott over to the mission control trailer.  He would be our mission director. This trailer was the equivalent of NASA's mission control. Les gave us a safety briefing on the communication methods that he had with the lodge.  It was from this trailer that Les would monitor us and our habitat while we remained underwater.  There was a bed in this trailer, so Les would even sleep there during our mission.

After that we walked over to the dock from where our dive would commence.  Rick had wheeled our equipment over to the dock.

We turned over to Les the things that we wanted to have down in the lodge during our stay.  This included our changes of clothing, toothbrushes, DVDs, camera, books, and a few photographs.  All of this stuff we were taking would have to be shuttled down to the lodge by Les and Rick in waterproof containers.  The containers were made of yellow plastic and the size of a large briefcase.

Les told us to put our equipment on.  Following our PADI instructions we took our BCs and dipped them in the water.   Linn was surprised at this and asked “What are they doing?”  Les replied that we were just following what we had learned in our PADI classes.  The BC is dipped in water so that the tank strap won't come loose after it gets wet.  That was a good feeling that Les recognized that we were doing what we were supposed to do.

Linn and Scott were allowed to float off the back of the dock and follow a line down to the habitat with Les as a guide.  With apprehension we watched as they disappeared under the water.  I say with apprehension because we knew that once they were down inside of the habitat, it would be our turn to go next.

Les came back up and told us that he was going to take Lexie down first.  That sounded like a great idea to me.  Since Lexie was only 11 years old, I thought that there might be a possibility that she would freak out and not get in the water.  Having Mary and I topside to talk her through any possible issues, seemed like a good plan.

Since Les was doing our open water certification, we had to do the giant stride off of the dock instead of taking the easy route out by floating off.  This was the first giant stride that we would attempt in over two months.

Lexie put on her equipment and tip-toed out to the edge of the dock.  I don't know what the distance between the dock surface and the water was but it seemed really large.  In my mind it seemed like it was at least 4 feet.  It could have been less but the giant stride looked to me like it was going to be a giant leap.

Les was in the water and told Lexie to step out.  He counted “1, 2, 3, step!”  Lexie remained frozen at the edge of the dock.  My fears seemed to be realized, Lexie balked.  Mary and I offered words of encouragement to Lexie.  In her own time, Lexie stepped off and did the giant stride into the water.  One of us was down; two more of us were left to go.

Les told her to float on her back and relax.  He then had her go over towards the steps of the dock, where the line was tied that would lead down to the habitat.  Les told Lexie to put her face down in the water so that she could see the line.  Initially she hesitated, but then complied.

Les had Lexie grab the line and down into the murky lagoon they went.  With just Mary and I topside now, I had a lot of anxiety as to how Lexie was doing.  There was no way to see her progress, we could only hope for the best.

In a little while, Rick came up from below on the return trip of his shuttle run of our personal effects to the habitat.  He announced that Lexie was down inside the wet room and was having a great time.  That was a big relief.

So now the question became who would go next, Mary or me.  I knew that I could overcome my fears and one way or another; I would make it down to the habitat.  With Mary, I wasn't quite so sure.  After seeing her freak out during our first pool session there was a lot of doubt in my mind that it wouldn't be repeated.

Les came up and asked who wanted to go next.  Thinking it over, I told Mary that she should go next, because if Lexie is panicking down in the lodge, she could comfort Lexie better than I could.  Yes, it was a lie.  I knew that I could comfort Lexie as well as Mary.  I also knew in my heart that if I went into the water and made it down to the lodge before Mary, it was highly probably that she would just pack up and go back to the Holiday Inn.

Mary agreed to go next.  She put on her equipment and stepped off the dock to do the giant stride entry into the water.  She disappeared into the pea green soup.  In a few seconds she popped up.  Her mask had come off and she looked panicked.

If you've ever seen the look on the face of a drowning cat, that was similar to Mary's expression.  If she could have clawed her way out of the lagoon she would have.

Les soothingly encouraged Mary to calm down.  After she got her mask repositioned he told her to relax and float on her back.  Mary complied and you visually see her body relaxing as she floated.

Les then took Mary over to the line by the steps and repeated the process of having her look into the water to see and grab the line.  Off into the murk they went.

Now I was all alone at the dock.  Nobody else was around me.  Rick wasn't there.  Les and Mary were someplace in the murk.  Lexie, Linn, and Scott were presumably safely inside the habitat.  A lot can go through your mind in that short little while.

My own appointment with destiny was coming soon enough.   However that was not what concerned me now.  My only concern was Mary getting down safely to the habitat. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for some sign that Mary was safely inside of the habitat.

A few bubbles appeared at the surface of the murk heading towards the dock.  It was Les, and he was alone!  Mary had made it down to and gotten inside of the habitat.  That was a big relief for me.

Okay, now I was in the spotlight.  Here it is time to do that damn giant stride again.  Thoughts of my last experience with this skill flashed through my brain as I remembered my weight belt falling off.  I saw Mary's panicked image as she came up from her plunge with her mask ajar.

Les did a good thing though, he reminded us to hold onto the mask and regulator with one hand and hold onto our weight belt with the other hand as we stepped off.

There was no count down for me.  I blotted the fear out of my mind.  Lexie and Mary had succeeded in this; I would at least have to try.  I stepped off and plunged into the murk.  I don't know how far down my head went below the surface, but all I could see was pea green soup.  No worries about the bottom being far away here.  It could have been a mile deep and you never would have known it.

Apparently my breathing rate was pretty high.  Les told me to calm down and breathe deeply. I was sucking down a lot of air.  It was probably similar to the way I was sucking air when I first started snorkeling back at our first pool dive training session.

Getting used to floating in the murk, Les asked me to fin over to his position.  I did so and he took control of my BC.  He was checking my buoyancy and adjusted my weight for neutral buoyancy.

I don't recall Les instructing me to look in the water to see the line.  At this point, I was relaxed enough to just get it done.  Lest told me that when I came to the end of the line attached to a leg of the habitat to make sure that I ducked as I went under and up into the moon pool.  There were plenty of barnacles on the habitat and hitting your head on them would not have been a good thing.

Down into the darkness we went.  Visibility was not more than a foot or two.  I was calm at this point.  I was in the water with my equipment.  I felt confident.  Once I'm in the water with my equipment I actually feel pretty good.  It was the getting in part with the giant stride that gave me the most concern.

I swallowed on the way down a couple of times to equalize.  We were descending 30 feet deep, 5 fathoms.  Les signaled to me to ask if I was Okay.  I responded back with the Okay signal.  This was actually fun, following this line in the murk.

Faster than I expected to, we reached the end of the line at one of the legs of the habitat.  I ducked down as instructed and came up inside of the moon pool.  Seated on the edge of the pool with towels wrapped around them were Scott, Linn, Lexie, and Mary.  We made it!

Linn asked to look up for a photo.  I did so, but kept my mask on and put my snorkel in my mouth.  I was instructed by first dive instructor Dennis that anytime you are in the water, if you regulator is not in your mouth, your snorkel should be.  Like a good soldier I was following orders. Les told me that I really didn't need the snorkel as all I needed to do was stand up in the moon pool.

Thinking it over, he was right, so I relinquished my safety blanket.  I removed my BC, my weight belt, and my fins.   I hoped out of the moon pool into the wet room of the habitat. 30 feet under the sea I was on top of the world!  It was a feeling of exhilaration for me to be there.  Not only was I there, but I was there with my wife and granddaughter, and all three of us were there with Mercury Astronaut and Sealab II Commander Scott Carpenter.

I will never know what it feels like to summit Mount Everest, but I imagine the feeling must be similar to what I was feeling inside of that habitat.  You just want time to stop so that you can bask in the glow of success.

Les instructed me to shed my wet suit and hop in the shower to rinse off.  I did so and then was handed a towel to dry off with and a T-shirt to wear.  Likewise Les removed his equipment and rinsed off from being in the pea green soup.

The wet room was much smaller than it appeared in photos.  Once again the illusion created by a wide angle camera lens came into play.  The ceiling in the wet room seemed to be about 5 feet high.  The width of the room seemed to be about 8 feet across and the length seemed to be about 12 feet long.  The floor was covered with a non-slip rubber mat.  There was a bench to store equipment under and hooks on the walls to hang up the wet suits.  The moon pool at one end of the room and which was the sole entry point for the habitat appeared to be about 3 feet across and 5 feet long.

The first order of business was for a safety tour of the facilities.  Les instructed us in the methods of communication.  We not only had an intercom, we had a regular telephone, a marine band radio, and a sonophone.  I was highly unlikely that we would ever get to a point where we were out of communication.  In addition to the communication lines available, there was a closed circuit television camera that monitored the area around the moon pool.

Our call sign was “Hotel”, and Les's call sign up in mission control would be “Topside”.  I think we just all wanted to party at this point, but diligently listed to Les and the mandatory safety briefing.

Les then took us on a tour of the facility, showing us the common room as well as the bedrooms.  At one point I was alone with Scott in a room and I thanked him for this experience.  I told him that without him, I never would have had the motivation to do this.  It was a long way from the corn fields of Nebraska.  Scott smiled.  You could tell he was having a great time being back in his element.

We retired to the common living area.  At one end was a kitchen where our mer-chef Les began madly preparing our feast.  Les you see was a jack of all trades on this mission.  He was not only mission director, guide, and instructor, but he was also our chef.

The menu selection was steak or lobster.  Mary, Lexie, and I chose the lobster, while Scott and Linn chose the steak.

As we waited for the meal to be prepared, I had way too much energy to sit down.  The subject of our scuba training came up and it didn't take much to begin telling the story of our pool sessions.  Scott listened intently as I recounted the saga in minute detail.  He understood what a sense of accomplishment it was for all of us to address our fears and to over come them.

I took some photos of us in the living area while we waited for our meal.  The topics of conversation were varied, but everyone was having a great time.  At one point Scott was resting his head against the carpeted bulkhead with his eyes closed.  Les asked Scott if he was Okay.  Scott replied, oh yes, I am just enjoying the conversation.  It was great to see Scott in such a zone of contentment.

I had a few things brought down that I wanted Scott to autograph while we were under the sea in the habitat.  I couldn't think of any better autograph for my collection that to have the Sealab II commander who lived under the sea to sign a leather bound Easton Press edition of Jules Verne’s 20’000 Leagues Under The Sea.  The book was also most appropriate since this habitat is now called the Jules Verne Lodge.  Scott signed the book and added the notation “26 FSW”.

He asked me if I knew what that meant.   I told him that I did not know what it meant.  Scott said that it was an old diver's term that stood for 26 Feet Sea Water, indicating our depth.

 I also asked Scott to sign a Sealab photo for me and to sign one to Lexie.  I hated to impose about the autographs, but I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wanted a memento to remember it by.

I then showed Scott, that I had brought down a paperback copy of his novel, “Deep Flight” to read during our stay under the sea.  He took that and signed it too.  I didn't intend for him to sign that but was pleased when he did.

To our amazement in the Holiday Inn gift shop, Mary found a CD with the song “Yellowbird” on it.  We played this on the DVD player during our dinner preparations. Mary requested Scott to sign the CD cover, to which he gladly complied.

Les had the dinner prepared and Lexie sat next to Scott, while I sat next to Lexie and Mary and Linn sat together at another table.

It was a fine dinner.  I had to force myself to take stock of my surroundings.  Here I was eating dinner with my family and Astro/Aquanaut Scott Carpenter.  This was no ordinary dinner, but it was happening 26 feet under the surface of the ocean.  No one on the planet was having a better dinner than I was having that evening.

The time really slipped away from us.  We had descended down to the habitat at around 5 PM.  By now, it was nearing 10 PM.  The pea green soup outside of the windows of our habitat now turned to pitch black.

Linn started to become somewhat concerned because she had never been on a night dive before.  Scott noticed this and became concerned for Linn, looking after her like a parent looks after their child.  He discussed the situation with Les.

With a touch of sadness we watched as Linn, Scott, and Les donned their dive equipment for the return trip to topside.  Scott was trying to put his BC on and was having some difficulty reaching his around back into the arm hole.  Scott was having shoulder problems and it was just too awkward for him to reach.  Les, noticed this and undid the snaps so that Scott could just slide into the BC.

You could tell that Scott was very frustrated.  Here was a proud man and veteran of many adventures and here he felt helpless due to his age.  You could tell by the expression on his face and the tone in his voice.

I personally felt horrible seeing this.  It reminded me of my own frail parents and the frustration that I would occasionally see in them as they aged.  Les also picked up on that and said something to the effect of “No worries Scott, we've all got it coming.”

Scott, Linn, and Les posed in the moon pool for a farewell photo.  We watched as they disappeared under the habitat to follow then line back up to the dock.

So now, the three of us were alone.  We marveled at where we were.  Before we could get too lonely though, Les was back, he had returned to take a briefcase full of trash back topside.  Much like a space station, trash is a major issue in such confined living environments.

Before he departed for the final time that night, Les told us that he would take us out in the morning to run us through some of our open water certification skills the next morning.  That sounded like a good plan. Our EVA was scheduled.

Les also asked us what we wanted for breakfast the next morning.  He offered to cook for us again.  I told him that wasn't necessary, that we would be fine with the cereal and other foods that were available in the kitchen.

Les noticed a prawn had hopped up on a ledge in the moon pool. It was apparently trying to escape some fish that were attracted to the light from the wet room which shined into the water.    To the distress of the prawn, Les picked it up and tossed it back into the water of the pool.  In a flash a foot long fish swooped up in the water and had prawn sushi for dinner.

Mary, Lexie, and I retired to our bedrooms.  We broke out some of the DVDs that we had brought down to watch.  The first video that we watched was “The Little Mermaid”.  Watching this in an undersea habitat seemed very appropriate.  We even cooked a bag of microwave popcorn to watch the movie with.

We had such a good time.  Here we were essentially isolated from the rest of the world. There were no worries under the sea.  My high pressure job from which I escaped was but a distant memory.  I was spending quality time with my wife and granddaughter.

Reluctantly we turned off the TV to go to sleep.  We were still full of excitement but knew that we had a full day ahead of us with our open water certification testing.

The story of Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Expedition 1 continues.  Follow the ASF EXP 1 C link for the last part of the story.

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UPDATED : March 9, 2007
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