Robert Sténuit: the original aquanaut

An astronaut trains for a space mission at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

From The Atlantic

Just after 11:00 yesterday morning, East Coast time, four divers plunged into the warm waters off Key Largo, Florida, descending over 60 feet to the ocean floor.

Their destination: Aquarius, the world's only undersea scientific laboratory.

The researchers -- three astronauts and an astronomy professor, two from the U.S., one from Britain, and one from Japan -- are testing concepts for a mission potentially scheduled for 2025: an expedition to an asteroid.

The pressurized environment of the deep sea is nicely analogous to the environment that astronauts will encounter as they explore rocks hurtling through space; the ocean depths, in that sense, make for an ideal training ground for extra-atmospheric exploration.

The current group of explorers will stay submerged for twelve days. Their trip will mark the sixteenth mission of Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations -- abbreviation: NEEMO.

The participants in that mission are probably not in need of any extra exuberance as they go about their undersea adventure: As far as temporary professions go, "aquanaut" is about as exhilarating as they come.

Still, if they find themselves wanting some additional inspiration during the twelve days they'll spend isolated from their land-locked loved ones, the Aquarians might look to Robert Sténuit -- who, among many other accomplishments, has the distinction of being the world's first aquanaut.

Sténuit is one of those remarkable renaissance men that the mid-20th century proved so good at producing: He has been variously an explorer, a historian, a journalist, an author, an archaeologist, a business advisor, an engineer, a dolphin advocate, a treasure hunter, and a spelunker.

In 1953, at the age of 20, Sténuit -- who was then studying politics at Brussels' Free University, preparing for a law degree -- read Harry Reiseberg's 600 Milliards Sous les Mers, a fictional account of an undersea treasure hunt.

Sténuit, whose side passions were scuba diving and (because this cannot be said enough) spelunking, was inspired.

He promptly dropped out of school, and the next year began searching for the Spanish treasure that might remain from the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay.

Unsuccessful in that attempt, he teamed up with another treasure hunter, the American John Potter, doing search and recovery for the Atlantic Salvage Company.

Fulll story...

FLORIDA Key Largo Robert Sténuit astronauts Aquarius Extreme Environment Mission Operations