NASA’S Tektite II Undersea Habitat

Interview with Aquanaut and Engineer Peggy Lucas Bond

Divers outside the Tektite underwater habitat

Divers outside the Tektite underwater habitat, 1970. Photo Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)

Tektite was the name given to an undersea project funded by NASA from 1969-70. Tektites are impact glasses formed by large meteorite impacts, and the Tektite habitat was named after these shiny fused bits of material that were seen at the bottom of the ocean. The habitat was located off the coast of St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was home to several crews over those two years, and was used by NASA to simulate the harsh environments one might experience in space.

One of NASA’s primary aims was to study the effects of prolonged isolation, and how people would endure extended space missions.

The Tektite project took place in two phases, composed of various crews. Tektite I (1969) consisted of a four member crew, all males, and lasted two months. Tektite II (1970) consisted of several smaller missions, lasting 10 or 14 days each. For Tektite II, the decision was made to include a fifth crew member, an engineer, and the inaugural mission was staffed entirely by females. The women’s success laid the groundwork for female aquanauts to be regularly included in future aquatic missions, and for their inclusion in space missions.

Tektite set many records, including the first long-term scientific mission in the sea, longest saturation dive, largest study of social behavior in an isolated habitat, first NASA mission to include women, and only mission with an all-female crew.* I recently had the pleasure of chatting with that crew’s engineer, Peggy Lucas Bond, about her experiences and that historic mission. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Spaceflight Insider: It seems unusual that a female chose to study engineering in the 1960s. Tell me how that came about.

Peggy Lucas: There were not that many engineers, however during WWII there were quite a few women that went into engineering. Then things fell off.

For me, it was quite unscientific! In my freshman year of High School, my family moved from Washington, D.C. to the Philadelphia area, and we drove by a college. I said. ‘That’s a really cool campus, that’s where I’m going to go to school!’ My father said, ‘You can’t, it’s an all male school.’ The school was Villanova, and in my sophomore year I found out they were taking female engineers. I was good at math and interested in computers. If you were interested in computer in 1964, you became an electrical engineer. So that’s what I did! There were only two other female engineers at the time. Now a third of the class is female.

Peggy Lucas inside the Tektite Habitat

Peggy Lucas inside the Tektite Habitat observes diver Sylvia Earle (c.1970). Photo Credit: Exploring The Deep Frontier by Sylvia Earle and Al Giddings.

Spaceflight Insider: What made you apply for or wind up doing this mission?

Peggy Lucas: ”Well, ‘wind up’ is the appropriate thing! I was at grad school at the University of Delaware, and I was on a sea grant fellowship, which at that time was administered by the National Science Foundation. The assistant director of the sea grant at NSF, Hal Goodwin, was the scientific member on the board of the Tektite II project, and he was responsible for finding all the scientists and approving their scientific programs.

“He had been a real promoter of the women’s team. In fact, he wanted a team of couples as well and Hal just really wanted women in there however he could. They wouldn’t allow a mixed team, but they figured that they could also kill the female team by saying ‘we don’t have a female engineer.’ It came down to telling Hal Goodwin one day, ‘If you can find a female engineer, we’ll have a female team.’ And he called my thesis adviser one day and said, ‘Do you think Peggy swims?’ It so happened I’d been a lifeguard!”

Note: Peggy was sent to a diving program in Washington, D.C. run by ex-Navy Seals, from which she came away with 16 graduate credits and the title of Assistant Scientific Director of the Tektite II project. She was also the first female to work in NASA’s big underwater tank in Huntsville. “I was thinking about it when I went to see ‘Gravity,’ and I was thinking how different the movements in space were from how you move in that big tank.”

Tektite II Crew Members

St. John, Virgin Islands: Program manager James W. Miller with the aquanette team of Tektite II. Left to right, the team members are: Ann Hartline, Alina Szmant, Peggy Lucas, Renate True, Sylvia Earle. Photo Credit: NASA; Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Spaceflight Insider: What was it like down there? Were you claustrophobic? Afraid?

Peggy Lucas: ”We were underwater, and we were at a depth where after a day, you could not surface without getting the bends. That was the NASA design requirement. What they wanted to do was recreate a working environment that you couldn’t escape from. That was why these were really, really important psychological things. You were down there until they brought the bathyscaphe down and you went in the compression chamber and came up to the surface. Typically anyone who dives is not claustrophobic. Probably the worst thing of the whole thing was the food.”

Spaceflight Insider: Tell me about that. Were you able to cook? What did you eat?

Peggy Lucas: ”We had an electric stove or an electric burner that you could heat things up with, but they were also trying some of the new space food. Some of it was pretty bad. I think we wound up eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly. We had freeze-dried food, it was the beginning of freeze-dried and we had a lot of powdered food. We had freeze-dried spaghetti, I do remember that, and we had powdered eggs.I don’t think we had fresh mild or fruit, it was all pretty much packaged kinds of things we ate. A lot of it was frozen, we had a refrigerator with frozen food.”

(Note: The crews of the Tektite project were fed new food choices that were being evaluated for the Skylab missions.)

Spaceflight Insider: As an engineer, did you get to go out in the water a lot?

Peggy Lucas: “One of the things that is probably true to any minority group, ours was bound and determined to do everything better than the men could do. So the women logged in more hours in the water than anyone. Typically the teams were two people who worked together on a project. The women’s team was quite different. We had two women, Ann Hartline and Aline Szmant, who worked on one project. Sylvia Earle and Renate True had their own projects, so very often I would wind up being a partner for one or the other of them. So I did go out a lot.”

Peggy Lucas Bond

Tektite II Engineer and Assistant Scientfic Director Peggy Lucas Bond in her home in Hawaii. Photo Credit: Peggy Lucas Bond.

Spaceflight Insider: In addition to the isolation study, what other types of things were going on?

Peggy Lucas: “Alina and Anne’s experiments had to do with fish and their responses to shadows. At the moment I can’t remember what Sylvia’s experiments were, but Renata had a really interesting one. She put down artificial grasses on the ocean floor, and determined that the grass attracted the fish not necessarily because it was something for them to eat, but that it was protection from the larger animals.”

Spaceflight Insider: I met Scott Carpenter a few months before he passed. Were there similarities between Sealab and Tektite?

Peggy Lucas: “We were only 50 feet down – they were over 200 feet. The ramifications of the dangers on that were unbelievable. They were in the Pacific as opposed to the Caribbean. It was a totally different environment and they were doing totally different things, and a lot of theirs was geared towards manipulating tools undersea, basically things that would help rescue submarines or help with offshore drilling. Theirs was more a rescue-based concept. Scott (Carpenter) was down at Tektite for about a month, around the time the women’s team was there.”

Spaceflight Insider: One of the aims of Tektite was dealing with isolation. We’re hearing about Dennis Tito and his plans to go to Mars with his wife, what’s your sense of it?

Peggy Lucas: ”I think it has to be an individual choice, and you have to make it because you really want to do it. And then somebody has to determine if you can handle it. But I think if you’re motivated enough, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it.

“Mike (Lucas’ husband) and I talk occasionally about the concept of going to Mars, and what it would take to get somebody to volunteer knowing they probably wouldn’t come back. I suppose that physically if I were younger, had children were grown and those kinds of things, I might seriously think about doing it. But I think I’m too old to do it, and space was never one of my things.”

Spaceflight Insider: What was the hardest thing, and your favorite moment?

Peggy Lucas: ”The hardest moment was telling everybody they had to slow down and do things right. There was one spot in the entire habitat where you could go without being seen or heard, and two of us went in there and talked about, “What do I do next?” That was the worst. Actually, there was one other thing that wasn’t scary until you actually thought about it. We actually had an earthquake when we were down there. It was about 3 ½ on the Richter scale. It shook the whole habitat and alarm bells went off inside, and then it was over. We didn’t know what it was, we found out about 20 minutes later!”

“My favorite moment? It was just all fun. It was work, and you had to pay attention and you had to be aware, but nothing was a highlight. The whole ten days was a highlight.”

*Quote from Tektite Revisited, by James Merle Thomas and Meghan O’Hara


Republished with permission from Space Flight Insider. Be sure to follow them on Facebook: The Spaceflight Group as well as on Twitter at: @SpaceflightGrp

Author: Stacey Severn

Stacey Severn is a science enthusiast, writer, and community builder. She serves as Social Media Coordinator for Neil deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk Radio, and volunteers as a relationship manager for The Explorers Club. Although Stacey's professional career has been in Marketing and Telecommunications, she plays the flute professionally and holds a degree in music performance. She spends her spare time educating the public about science through involvement in her local observatory in Stratford, CT.

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  • http://codefap.com/ Omkar Bhagat

    Great article. An experience told. Respect for Peggy Lucas.

    • Stacey Severn

      Omkar, thank you for your comment! This little-remembered mission led to important learnings, and was instrumental in helping to save the Chilean miners. Here is a YouTube clip of a documentary being made by the St. John Historical Society about Tektite. They are working to get funding to complete it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzEP_NmgFjg

      • Andrij Harasewych

        Fantastic Stacey! Thank you! I’ll have to give this a watch!

      • http://codefap.com/ Omkar Bhagat

        Oh. Thanks Stacey. Feels great to see all the old footage inside this trailer.
        They could use Kickstarter to fund the documentary.