This odd-looking machine is called a bathyscaphe, and while it’s accurate to say it’s a type of submarine, that doesn’t quite capture what it is and what it does. This particular bathyscaphe–there aren’t very many of them, for the record–is called the Trieste, and 54 years ago today, on January 23, 1960, it took two men to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, over 35,000 feet under the surface. That this thing didn’t crush like an eggshell at that depth proves it’s made of sturdy stuff.
The Trieste was built in Italy by Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard in 1953. It’s mainly a float chamber, filled with gasoline (environmental hazard?) with a tiny sphere of super-strong titanium capable of holding two people. The U.S. Navy bought the Trieste in 1958 for its Project Nekton, a series of super-deep sea dives. It was in this capacity that Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard–son of the designer–went down to the bottom of Challenger Deep in January 1960, ostensibly to look around but mainly to prove that it could be done.
What’s down there? Not much. Walsh and Piccard described the bottom of the deepest ocean as being covered with “diatomaceous ooze,” a kind of organic goo. In 2012 movie director James Cameron descended to the bottom of the same trench in another vehicle, Deepsea Challenger, and reported that he could see nothing–the bottom was as blank and featureless as the shell of an egg. Amazingly, though, Walsh and Piccard said they saw fish swimming at that depth, proving that vertebrate creatures can survive even in such astounding pressure conditions. They spent only 20 minutes on the bottom, after a 3+ hour dive.
So what does this have to do with Star Trek? The creators of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation decided in 1986 to name the new captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, after the Trieste’s designer Auguste Piccard and its famous passenger Jacques Piccard. The younger Piccard died in 2008. While I doubt it happened, it would have been cool if, when giving the order to launch the bathyscaphe into the deep on that day in January 1960, Piccard had said, “Engage!”