FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Contact: Dave Wellman, Director of Communications (304) 696-7153
Documentary on historic ‘Gulf Stream Drift Mission’ features Marshall alum from Williamson, W.Va. HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Thirty-six years ago, in the shadow of the Apollo 11 moon-walk, Marshall University alumnus Chester B. “Chet” May and five other men headed in the opposite direction to make a different kind of engineering history.
In July 1969, while the Apollo 11 astronauts soared upward 250,000 miles, May and the other PX-15 submarine aquanauts descended 2,000 feet off the coast of Florida. May, at that time a NASA scientist, and the others were conducting a dangerous NASA experiment that had them sealed for 30 days inside a tiny deep-sea capsule far below the Gulf Stream surface.
The PX-15 submarine, christened the Ben Franklin, was ingeniously designed by Swiss adventurer and explorer Jacques Piccard to drift in the current, without engine power, to 2,000 feet below the surface. Military submarines of that era were crushed at 1,000 feet and, without engine power, submarines sank. Yet, the PX-15, minus engine thrust, drifted for 1,500 miles, from Florida to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The Gulf Stream Drift Mission, as it was known, served as a space station analog for long duration missions. The aquanauts’ task was simple: survive those 30 days exploring the deep, uncharted depths of the Gulf Stream.
The event is the subject of an Omni Film Productions Ltd. documentary titled “The Disappearance of the PX-15” that airs July 14 on The Science Channel – a digital Discovery network. Viewers should check local listings to see at what time and where the documentary will be shown in their area.
The hour-long documentary debuted April 11 on History Television in Canada, but has not yet been shown in the United States.
May, now 72 and living in Huntsville, Ala., is a 1951 graduate of Williamson (W.Va.) High School, and earned his Bachelor of Engineering Science degree from Marshall in 1961 after a year working in the coal mines and four years in the U.S. Air Force. He also earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1975. May’s role on the PX-15 was to collect biological cultures inside the submarine and observe the psychological impact of the mission on the men for NASA.
On the mission, May was known as “NASA’s man in the ocean.” His crewmates were: Piccard, the mission director; Don Kazimir, a former U.S. Navy captain and captain of the mission; Erwin Aebersold, a Swiss engineer and designer and pilot of the mission; Frank Busby, a U.S. Navy oceanographer who mapped the ocean floor and collected scientific data on the mission; and Ken Haigh, a British Royal Navy acoustics expert who conducted scientific experiments using acoustics on the mission.
What NASA discovered from the mission still guides space travel today, but the story was a virtual secret until 1999 when James Delgado, executive director of the Vancouver, British Columbia, Maritime Museum, stumbled upon the wreck of the PX-15 in a North Vancouver shipyard. He was amazed to find the basic structure still there.
Delgado, astounded that the PX-15 was rusting as junk, vowed to restore it and investigate what happened to the crew. The documentary follows Delgado as he recovers the sub and reunites three of the four surviving crew – May, Kazimir and Aebersold.
“I thought it was great,” May said of the documentary. “I just thought the Ben Franklin was doomed for the dumps. He (Delgado) really did a fantastic job. There never really was anything done on the history of that mission.”
May was selected by Dr. Wernher von Braun, one of the world’s first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel, to represent NASA on the mission. “He built the rocket that put us on the moon,” May said of von Braun.
The drift mission began on July 14, 1969, two days before Apollo 11 lifted off. The PX-15 had been built in Switzerland, disassembled, then shipped in crates to Florida, where it was reassembled. On July 14, it was towed 20 miles out to sea from the Florida coast, the hatch was sealed and the descent began.
On July 16, as the Apollo soared, the PX-15 descended. Four days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.
The drift mission was not without incident. Water became contaminated and carbon monoxide levels rose, and on one occasion the submarine drifted 35 miles off course. On day 13, it was forced to surface, while remaining sealed, then was towed back into the gulf stream – a bouncy, seven-hour venture May described as “hot, tough and rough.”
The PX-15 surfaced again on Aug. 14, 1969, and the mission was declared a success. It did, however, last a few hours longer than expected to ensure that the submarine would surface in daylight.
“It was 30 days, 12 hours,” May said. “Slow, slow, slow. By the 15th day we were marking off the days.”
May said he always wanted to be an engineer, and to this day credits Marshall for giving him the opportunity to realize his dreams. “Marshall saved me,” he said. “It was part of my journey and always has been.”
May said he worked his entire NASA career, from 1966 to 1984, toward being on a space flight as a payload specialist, but it just never worked out. He decided in 1982, at age 50, that it was “time to go.” He retired from NASA in 1984, then was named chief of McDonnell Douglas Corp.’s Space Station Systems Engineering and Integration Office in Huntsville. He retired for good, this time from Grumman Space Station Program Support Division, in 1995.
While May enjoys life these days with his wife of nearly 49 years, Anita Louise, their three daughters and seven grandchildren, the restored PX-15 stands outside the Vancouver Maritime Museum for all to explore. And the drift mission, forgotten by most for more than 30 years, suddenly lives again.
“I just feel proud to have been a part of it,” May said.
NOTE: Photos from the documentary are available for use by the media on the Web at www.marshall.edu/ucomm/muphoto.html.