Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who headed NOAA under George W. Bush’s administration, said he understands Lubchenco’s mandate to fund “high-ticket items” that include climate research and satellites for severe weather forecasting.
“But I really believe it’s a mistake to shut it down,” he said. “It is an important national asset. We’re an island nation, and we depend on the ocean. We need to stay connected to the ocean and understand and learn about it.”
The ocean also has been invaluable about learning about space. Since 2001, Bill Todd has directed 16 NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Projects) at Aquarius.
“If this goes away, we do not have another place to turn,” Todd said. “Our ability to do engineering and training is going to be degraded. Can we still go to an asteroid and still train astronauts? Of course. But it’s going to be way more costly.
“I guarantee you in less than five years, people will be kicking themselves saying: ‘What in the hell were we thinking. Why did we get rid of this unbelievable national and global resource that benefits so many for so little?’ ”
Aquarius is not a program without flaws. Many past and current employees of Aquarius say in recent years it suffered from a lack of high-level support from both NOAA and UNC-Wilmington.
“A lack of support was why I left,” said Ellen Prager, Aquarius’ former chief scientist. “You can’t push a program forward and look to the future, while fighting with the organization that is supposed to be running it.”
Aquarius employees say they also were restrained by overzealous safety regulations and fear of litigation, which became worse after the 2009 death of a 36-year-old technical diver while working on a Navy project. The cause of death was a rare malfunction of a rebreather, which scrubs carbon dioxide from exhaled air and recirculates it so air tanks will last longer.
“We had so many ridiculous rules we could barely operate,” said Dominic Landucci, Aquarius’ communications guru, who was laid off this month after nearly 10 years.
Prager and Koblick said they would like to see the development of the next generation of underwater habitats. While NOAA is relying more on remote cameras, remote operating vehicles and censors to do ocean research, Prager and Koblick say they do not replace the curiosity and passion of humans to learn about the sea.
Koblick is one of the pioneers in underwater habitats, first working on the Tektite project in 1969 in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He later developed and operated the La Chalupa Research Laboratory, the largest and most technologically advanced habitat of the time. It operated in more than 100 feet of water off the coast of Puerto Rico until funding ran out in 1976. Years later he was watching a Burt Reynolds movie and saw the habitat virtually abandoned in the New River in Miami. He saved it and turned it into the Jules Undersea Lodge. It sits in a small lagoon in Key Largo, where any diver can get a taste of underwater living. Koblick also heads the Marine Resources Development Foundation that operates MarineLab Underseas Laboratory, a small habitat used primarily by students .
But his underwater habitats do not do man in the sea research. “I’m afraid if Aquarius goes away, there will never be another one,” Koblick said. “It’s too big a job to start from scratch.”
Aquarius has a brain trust that exists nowhere else in the world. The long-term monitoring that is being done at the site also is irreplaceable.
“Some say what we’re doing is old hat, but it’s really not,” said associate operations director Otto Rutten, an 18-year employee of Aquarius.
Cooper, Aquarius’ former operations director, blames himself for not doing enough to publicize their numerous accomplishments on a lean budget. “Not being part of the Beltway three-piece suiters, I felt the best way to survive was stay as invisible as possible,” he said. “Maybe that hurt us.”
But the ocean has always played second fiddle to the atmosphere and space in attention and funding. Ben Hellwarth, who wrote the new book SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor, said if Aquarius’ possible last mission had been the United States’ possible last trip to the space station or orbit, “We’d be hearing a lot more about it. Maybe the sea is seen as a dark and spooky place and the heavens up there are good and celestial and sparkling.”