THE FABIEN COUSTEAU Ocean Learning Center — named for and founded by the grandson of the renowned underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau — is proposing construction of a habitable underwater space station. Dubbed Proteus, after a Greek sea god, the underwater research station would enable scientists to spend days or weeks under water, doing what typically must be done in short, quick bursts by divers. The prospective site is just off the coast of Curaçao, an island country in the Caribbean.
Diving time is limited by the human body’s ability to regulate nitrogen as a person descends and ascends in the water. As people dive deeper, the increase in water pressure causes more nitrogen to dissolve from their lungs into their tissues. Rising to the surface too quickly can cause decompression sickness, colloquially known as the bends, as this nitrogen forms into bubbles.
Proteus would extend the amount of time that can be spent underwater because its two-story design would allow aquanauts to stay at the same depth for as long as they needed to, performing experiments in dedicated laboratory spaces. By being able to live and work in 60 ft of water, the researchers can undertake multi-day or -week research projects.
The 4,000 sq ft station would be four times the size of previously built submarine habitats. Yves Béhar, of fuseproject, has designed the center to be modular so that it can be expanded, and space and usage have been carefully optimized. The initial pod would be spiral shaped with a ramp forming a continual loop to encourage inhabitants to exercise. The pod could not be expanded vertically without introducing variable pressure layers within the center; instead, expansion would take place horizontally by adding more modules.
The initial design has bays for laboratories, sleeping quarters, life-support systems, and storage as well as a greenhouse so that there would be fresh food, a living room so that residents would have a comfortable place to gather together and relax, and a video production facility so that educational programming could be livestreamed. The largest bay would contain a moon pool that would be used as a dock, and the researchers would be able to use the underwater station as a base for research in deeper waters. Northeastern University, Rutgers University, and Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity are partners on the project.
This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.