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HomeNewsArchives40th Anniversary of Tektite Splashdown Celebrated

40th Anniversary of Tektite Splashdown Celebrated

Feb. 15, 2009 — Forty years have passed since four aquanauts jumped in the water at Great Lameshur Bay, St. John, to head for the Tektite underwater habitat anchored nearby off Cabritte Horn, and two of those aquanauts and the project's program manager were on hand Sunday to mark the anniversary at what is now the V.I. Environmental Resource Station.
"As I read through the material, I began to realize how big Tektite was not only for St. John, but for the country," Bruce Schoonover said.
Schoonover, a part-time St. John resident, delved far into numerous archives to create a presentation on the Tektite missions for the St. John Historical Society.
His talk included film of the splashdown on Feb. 15, 1969. In addition to the aquanauts, the late Gov. Cyril E. King was easily identifiable in the film. The aquanauts came back to the surface on April 15, 1969, after spending 19 hours and 22 minutes in a decompression chamber.
Subsequently, another 53 aquanauts completed 11 more missions in what was called Tektite II — including five women headed by acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
VIERS used the occasion to dedicate its small museum filled with information about the Tektite projects. It's open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. The public is welcome.
The Tektite project had its roots in the scientific exploration that evolved during the cold war as the United States vied with Russia for supremacy in space. The four aquanauts spent 60 days underwater because that was the amount of time NASA planned to spend astronauts into space orbit.
The aquanauts also served as guinea pigs for how people would behave while living in a confined space, refined diving techniques and conducted scientific experiments in the water that surrounded the habitat.
Attending Sunday's celebration were aquanauts Conrad Mahnken and Ed Clifton, along with Project Manager Jim Miller. The other aquanauts were Richard Waller and John VanDerwalker.
Clifton is now 74, Mahnken, 71, and Miller, 81.
The three went diving Saturday at the spot where the underwater habit stood.
"They were like little kids again," Schoonover said.
The mission brought together people from many government agencies. Clifton was a geologist with the U.S. Interior Department and Mahnken was an oceanographer with the Interior Department.
"We were real neophytes when it came to diving," Mahnken said.
Lameshur Bay is still a remote location, about an hour from Cruz Bay. In those days, the logistics to keep the project going were even more complicated. Everything had to be moved great distances to the base camp built by the U.S. Navy Seabees at what is now the VIERS compound.
Schoonover likened the effort to a Herman Wouk novel about the chaos that can occur in Caribbean life.
"It sounds like Don't Stop the Carnival," he said. "The issues had me howling."
Schoonover also spoke about the community involvement, with steel-pan music often provided by a group from Cruz Bay and water delivered by Pimpi Thomas, because drivers couldn't navigate the steep road to VIERS when it was wet.
"You'd call the fire station and if it wasn't raining, Pimpi would bring out the water," Schoonover said.
However, the water that kept the aquanauts alive was stored in a container aboard a support barge. Schoonover said they complained it tasted like rubber and was always 80 degrees.
In response to a question from the audience, Clifton said that they experienced a 2.7 earthquake that wasn't even felt at the base camp.
"It was a good jolt," he said.
After the missions at Lameshur were over, the underwater habitat went back to its base at the Philadelphia Navy yard before being shipped to San Francisco to use in an educational project.
"It was then used as a learning tool for welders and then was sold for scrap," Schoonover said.
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