Tektite Revisited

by James Merle Thomas & Meghan O’Hara

Bringing the final frontier back home: NASA, aquanauts, anechoic chambers, and the problems of modern living.

“Tektite Revisited” was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2010 call for proposals for the Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

“We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of the element air.”

—Evangelista Torricelli, letter to Michelangelo Ricci, 1644

“The techniques that are going to put a man on the moon are going to be exactly the techniques that we are going to need to clean up our cities.”

—Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, speech at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, May 7, 1968

“He was loose in some real tropics at last with swamp and coconut palms. It was encouraging. Technology and the tropics were not built to hide everything from each other.”

—Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970

One Small Swim

Tanned bodies lining Florida's coastline, spilling out of grandstands and parking lots, all eyes gazing skyward: a sea of binoculars, telephoto lenses, and darkened Ray-Bans reflecting the ascent of a pale white Saturn V rocket; cheering tourists packed into Cocoa Beach restaurants at 8 a.m. In the VIP bleachers, Lyndon B. Johnson, Johnny Carson, and Norman Mailer are all squinting, hands shielding eyes in a lazy civilian salute. It is the spring of 1969, a few months before man walks on the moon.

“Can man, who evolved from the sea to dominate the land, reverse the process by returning to the oceans and asserting his control over the depths?”

While a great number of Americans are looking up, fixated on the incremental successes of the manned spaceflight program, a number of NASA officials are in a control room on a beach in the US Virgin Islands, gazing intently downward, into the ocean, through a bank of video monitors. Their screens show four lean, bearded men sitting around a small table, eating enchiladas. A tape of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass plays quietly in the background. The men, barefoot and shirtless, talk about their day’s work. Everything in sight is done up in a drab, vaguely naval bluish gray. Modern appliances—sink, oven, microwave—all bear the logo of General Electric. A portal window reveals a fifth man swimming outside the kitchen.

These are America’s aquanauts: oceanographers, biologists, and engineers who lived and worked in an underwater capsule for weeks on end as part of NASA’s short-lived Tektite program. Named after glassy rocks on the ocean floor, thought to have been formed from meteorites crashing through Earth’s atmosphere some thirty million years ago, Tektite was the stuff of science fiction, a man-in-sea program that mirrored the man-in-space program. NASA’s early missions were brief excursions, designed to explore and incrementally expand the physical and medical possibilities of traveling into outer space. Tektite, part of NASA’s post-Apollo research into administering other kinds of spaces, modeled the realities of long-term living and working in an extreme and hostile environment. “Can man, who evolved from the sea to dominate the land, reverse the process by returning to the oceans and asserting his control over the depths?” asked Richard Lyons in the New York Times. “Tektite points toward man’s eventual control of the ocean,” he concluded, citing the exploitation of mineral and petroleum resources in the vast continental shelves and the eventual establishment of strategic underwater military bases, while emphasizing the “hopeful” nature of the experiment. Ultimately, Tektite aimed to engineer space-age solutions to the problems of modern life on Earth.

Despite being supported by NASA, the Departments of the Navy and the Interior, and ten other federal agencies, along with thirty-four universities and seven major corporations (chief among them General Electric), Tektite was a piecemeal affair, never even a line item in any federal budget. When the first mission was initiated, the Vietnam War was escalating, civil unrest was widespread, and NASA was scrambling to stay relevant in the face of severe Congressional budget cuts. The aesthetics of Tektite reflect this and complicate the standard 1960s NASA image of astronauts in immaculate white suits, tethered to a bewildering array of technological devices. More often than not, the aquanauts—many of whom were recognized scientists—were photographed in their bikinis or swim trunks, the men sporting shaggy hair and unkempt beards. Mission control was housed in a beachside mobile trailer on the depopulated southern end of St. John, where topside scientists slept in primitive tropical huts, battling mosquitos and fashioning novel rum drinks.

The world of Tektite fused modernist architecture and design, visionary scientific thinking, and experimental psychology; made collaborators of bureaucrats, research scientists, corporations, and avant-garde artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell; invoked Jacques Cousteau’s Le Monde sans soleil, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Today, as the final shuttle mission brings NASA’s manned spaceflight program to a close, and commercial endeavors such as Virgin Galactic begin to offer civilians the chance to become astronauts, Tektite reminds us how something as novel as space travel becomes routine, and recalls a time when underwater cities, orbital space stations, and lunar colonies were thought to be in our not-too-distant future.

Outer Space Interiors

Harold “Doc” Ross, MD, member of Tektite medical support team, describes the Tektite research program in a 2010 interview with the authors.

When NASA was conceived in the late 1950s, its researchers thought of inhabiting space in terms of biomedical and engineering concerns: What technologies were required to create a habitable environment in the vacuum of outer space? Astronauts were routinely wired with biometric devices throughout a mission, signaling the physiological impact of liftoff, rapid acceleration, and weightlessness. Buoyed by the successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, NASA began to shift its focus to considering how crews might live for weeks or months on lunar bases and missions to Mars. The agency recognized that the longer crews lived in a spacecraft, the more it resembled a home, and the more pressing certain psychological and social issues became. Astronauts returning from space confirmed this wide-reaching understanding of habitability. But there was a substantial divide between the actual experiences of astronauts and the theoretical expectations of engineers, whose main concern was efficiency. During the six manned Mercury missions, NASA researchers regularly noted, seemingly with surprise, that the crew expressed a basic desire for aesthetic pleasure—regarding Earth, gazing at the stars—in addition to the need for physical orientation in space. After the Mercury program ended, astronauts demanded that spacecrafts, which at that point were one-man chambers outfitted with tiny portals and a periscope, be designed with actual windows.

In exchange for the opportunity to study marine ethology and ecological systems from a two-chamber capsule fifty feet below the surface of the sea, the aquanauts were themselves transformed into objects of rigorous scientific study.

Prompted in part by the Nixon administration’s interest in long-term space missions, NASA created a small habitability office in 1969 to explore the realities—and banalities—of manned spaceflight. It studyied the social dynamics of arctic and underwater exploration teams and researched the psychological effects of prolonged isolation, enlisting experts in group psychology, sociology, experimental medicine, urban planning, and aesthetics. Outer space came to include other spaces, like society and culture, though the initial approach of scientists was to figure out how to quantify qualitative experiences, in tightly controlled settings. During the Tektite missions, researchers gathered data on everything from the amount of time aquanauts spent on leisure and hygiene to preferences for certain colors and textures. They entered the data onto punch cards, which were processed by IBM and Bell Labs, and synthesized their findings in behavioral reports.

By the height of the Cold War, NASA had become an index of techno-utopian planning, thanks in large part to the links the agency had created between space missions and the science of life on our planet. Although the Tektite program ended after only two years, its research was used by Skylab, the space station that began orbiting Earth in 1973, and, ostensibly, elsewhere on Earth. Tektite and the habitability research it supported were emblematic of the shift from understanding people and their environments in biological and mechanical terms to the embrace of systems theory, with its focus on quantifying subjective matters of taste, choice, and emotion. Federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as groups like the RAND Corporation, embraced forms of analysis and management techniques that echoed NASA’s evolving approach to habitability, especially in their efforts to engineered solutions to problems like urban renewal, education reform, city planning, and structural poverty. And so we ended up with prefabricated housing units made with “space-age” materials, “managed food plans” and industrially produced “food products” (i.e., microwaveable meals), and pneumatic delivery systems for groceries and refuse.


The first Tektite mission, in 1969, comprised four men and was submerged for two months. In exchange for the opportunity to study marine ethology and ecological systems from a two-chamber capsule fifty feet below the surface of the sea, perched atop a dynamic reef system, the aquanauts were themselves transformed into objects of rigorous scientific study. Medical tests included sleep studies and the endless drawing of blood samples, which confirmed that humans could dwell underwater for extended periods of time without adversely impacting their circulatory and nervous systems. The second iteration of Tektite, in 1970, was more directly focused on psychological and social observation; to generate more data, the mission was divided into a series of submersions of two to three weeks. Since the habitat maintained the same barometric pressure as the adjacent ocean—a condition known as saturation diving—the aquanauts were able to carry out experiments that would have otherwise been impossible: They dove freely, spending hours a day in SCUBA gear conducting research, without ever having to decompress. But the environment was also isolating, as aquanauts knew they would have to spend twenty hours in a decompression chamber before surfacing. So at the end of each day they gathered in their habitat and relaxed, cooked, talked, listened to music, watched television, played guitar, and finally slept.

Tektite began with fanfare comparable to a Cape Canaveral shuttle launch, with press conferences and VIP excursions to the rustic base camp for Congressmen, scientists, and foreign dignitaries. “Splashdowns,” “splashups,” and other milestones were covered by the New York Times, and the aquanauts were featured in Popular Science and other magazines. Aquanauts may have been minor celebrities compared with their space-bound counterparts, but the narrative was the same: heroic explorers braving extreme environments. There was also a cavalcade of 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.

Rendering of aquanaut Sylvia Earle observing a school of fish, by Pierre Mion, 1970.

Another Blue World

As the scope of the Tektite research program expanded with its second mission, NASA directors placed a call for proposals in leading scientific journals. At the time, Sylvia Earle was a promising oceanographer in her early thirties. Knowing that NASA was deeply concerned about the potential impropriety of a mixed-gender crew, Earle assembled a five-woman team of biologists, oceanographers, and engineers from the Scripps Institute and other leading academies. By this time NASA was facing considerable public criticism over the homogeneity of its spaceflight crews, and the agency decided to trade in the potential spectacle of a mixed-gender crew for that of an all-female crew. The mission, which took place in July 1970, generated countless photo ops and press conferences, arguably drawing more attention than any of Tektite’s scientific achievements. Aquanaut Alina Szmant, now a professor of marine science at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, recalls that Tektite directors had to place a press embargo on the mission after the first two days, so that the scientists could actually do some research. While most of the media coverage dwelled on the curious image of NASA women in wetsuits and bikinis (many newspapers incorrectly referred to the scientists as “aquanettes”), the habitability researchers noticed that the crew experienced fewer interpersonal conflicts and accomplished more than did their male counterparts.

John VanDerwalker, Tektite I aquanaut and Tektite II scientific research program director, discusses life underwater in a 2010 interview with the authors.

For the most part, however, Tektite was unlikely fodder for magazine spreads, as its scientist-explorers were more likely to have worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service than to have piloted an experimental aircraft. Biologist John VanDerwalker was thirty-two when he participated in the first Tektite mission, having spent the past decade at the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries studying the impact of changes in water pressure and temperature on salmon in the Northwest. At the fortieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Tektite program in St. John last November, he described his understanding of how larger systems impact individual members of a species as well suited for Tektite, where he tracked the behavior patterns of a species of spiny lobster indigenous to the Virgin Islands. For two months, these lobsters consumed VanDerwalker: He gradually eased into a nocturnal schedule to match that of the lobsters, and spent his time supergluing radio transponders to their carapaces to track their migratory habits. VanDerwalker’s findings were published in various scientific journals and summarized in a 1971 National Geographic article, as were papers by a number of other aquanauts—all of which were anthologized in a 1971 Department of the Interior report, Scientists-in-the-Sea.

While the papers written by VanDerwalker and his colleagues, as well as the reports composed by NASA scientists, traded in observable facts, aquanauts were equally consumed by the personal dimensions of their experiences. Though there was no official outlet for crew members to speak about how the mission was affecting them, NASA researchers assiduously recorded expressions of discontent, isolation, conflict. They found that the aquanauts tended to project their frustrations onto the topside crew, just as astronauts dealt with tension by badmouthing mission control. And the structure of the entire experiment allowed the aquanauts a large degree of freedom in deciding what to do and when; even when they breached protocol, topside psychologists preferred to see what would happen rather than command the renegades to alter their behavior.

Of course, there was much that evaded topside’s scrutiny and that could not be captured by the psychologists’ surveys. For many, a gulf of time and space opened up between them and the reality they had inhabited on the surface. “I essentially forgot about my family,” VanDerwalker told us. “I was living in a different world.”

Cover of Tektite II Behavioral Observer Handbook, courtesy NASA.
Habitability rubric devised by Edward Wortz, 1969, courtesy NASA.

Personal Data

Robert Irwin and James Turrell in an anechoic chamber at a Garrett AiResearch facility, 1969.
Irwin's studio being modified for NASA habitability symposium, 1970.

In 1962, Edward Wortz, an experimental psychologist working at the Garrett Corporation, a Los Angeles aerospace firm under NASA contract, began studying the effects of spatial orientation on human perception. Wortz immersed himself in the world of biofeedback and perception; collaborating with designers and artists, he developed elements of Apollo life-support systems, including spacesuit components, prototypes of spacecraft interiors, variable lighting consoles, even devices for storing and preparing food. Among these artists were Robert Irwin and James Turrell, who were paired with Wortz as part of Art & Technology, an exhibition program organized by Maurice Tuchman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the late 1960s. Irwin and Turrell were members of the Los Angeles-based Light and Space movement, which consisted of sculptors and painters who created installations out of manipulated light and color in order to explore the dynamics of perceptual processes. (Turrell actually began making artwork after studying perceptual psychology as an undergraduate.) Wortz, for his part, was interested in modeling the conditions of isolation in outer space, with an eye toward engineering solutions for NASA missions.1 “Wortz has done considerable research on the problem of actually walking on the moon,” Tuchman noted. Together, the three men experimented with alpha conditioning and spent countless hours in experimental “limiting” environments such as anechoic chambers and ganzfeld spheres.

1 Many aerospace corporations at this time were working with leading industrial designers to make interiors for spacecrafts. Garrett and Grumman Aerospace Corporation designed full-size mock-ups of space stations, complete with carpeted interiors and populated with mannequins suspended by wires as if weightless; while industrial designer Raymond Loewy worked to devise a system of aerosolized fragrances, which, when sprayed at mealtimes, would ostensibly make NASA’s notoriously dull astronaut food more exciting and pleasurable.

By 1969, when he was working with Irwin and Turrell, Wortz had assumed control of Garrett’s Life Sciences Research Division and was seen as a central figure among those working at the intersection of psychology, aesthetics, and engineering. He redefined the field of habitability, linking structural linguistics, analytic philosophy, and cultural anthropology. (He was especially attached to Edward Hall’s work on proxemics, a culturally oriented study of man’s use of space, as elaborated in his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension.) Wortz’s research led him to more closely question how subjective experiences and preferences could be studied and even quantified. In 1969, he was contracted to develop Tektite’s nine-point habitability assessment program, which measured privacy, unscheduled stress, formally and informally structured time, leisure habits, meal preparation, sleep routines, emotional displays, and even gregariousness toward fellow crewmates. Nevertheless, Wortz hinted at the incompleteness of these methods and tried to induce his NASA counterparts to understand habitability more expansively, account for emotion, habit, and affect—in sum, “quality of life”—and acknowledge the limitations of empirical inquiry in psychological research.

Despite Wortz’s urgings, NASA struggled to capture the complexity and richness of the aquanauts’ daily lives, burying evidence of creativity and imagination in reams of notes on “daily mood in relation to color of interior habitat and perceived level of privacy.” Transcripts of the interactions between Tektite crew members made by NASA observers reveal a surplus of detail lost in subsequent official reports (and call to mind lost Beckett plays). Referring to each crew member by number, observers exhaustively chart aquanaut interactions at a clinical remove.

This gap between data and experience was thrown into sharp relief in May 1970, when Wortz convened the NASA-sponsored First National Symposium on the Habitability of Environments, assembling several dozen aerospace engineers, psychologists, systems analysts, political scientists, and artists in Irwin’s Venice Beach studio, which the artist (in collaboration with Larry Bell and Frank Gehry) had transformed into a completely white, minimalist environment for the occasion. Though the various experts assembled agreed that studying how people behaved in spacecrafts, undersea habitats, and isolated situations could ostensibly lead to solutions to problems related to urban planning, population growth, and the environment, their most challenging task was to form a working definition of habitability that could accommodate the expansiveness of the research it entailed. While NASA scientists attempted to balance human desire and efficiency—this goal inevitably required the gathering of more data—Wortz and others posed broader questions about the very nature of empirical methodology. (By this point, Wortz had been certified as a clinical therapist and was practicing individual and group psychotherapy and biofeedback therapy.) They sought to promote habitability as a value system, taking into account “beauty, a sense of direction, love, peace, and self-actualization.”2

2 These themes were reiterated by Skylab astronauts in 1974. After orbiting the earth for more than eighty days, Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson testified before Congress and expressed concerns about NASA’s approach to managing small crews, noting the uncomfortable hygiene systems and ill-fitting uniforms. Perhaps most telling was their depiction of Earth as a cohesive system: They showed members of Congress dozens of photographs illustrating the impact—clearly visible from orbit—of air pollution, strip-mining, and clear-cutting. Pogue described his Skylab experiences in decidedly nontechnical terms. “I now have a new orientation of almost a spiritual nature,” he said. “My attitude toward life is going to change. When I see people I try to see them as operating human beings and try to fit myself into a human situation instead of trying to operate like a machine.”

While the three-day conference ended inconclusively, Wortz’s expansive notion of habitability gained traction in related fields: NASA engineers returned to their laboratories with a new (if fleeting) sensitivity toward issues of taste; psychologists focused on the systemic relationships that structured social issues such as poverty and addiction, and political scientists cited habitability and related “quality of life” issues in their efforts to balance ecological concerns with progressive urban-redevelopment plans. Wortz and Irwin’s research turned into a decades-long friendship, which saw Wortz leave the aerospace industry, get recertified as a Gestalt therapist, and become a Zen Buddhist; he and Irwin continued to work together, most notably on Irwin’s unrealized Arts Enrichment Master Plan for the Miami International Airport.

Performance Studies

While NASA psychologists acquired some Tektite information via daily “mood adjective” checklists and exit interviews, the majority of their data was collected through surreptitious videocamera observation. The habitat’s extreme surveillance system anticipated that of Skylab, which New Yorker reporter Henry S. F. Cooper described as being “bugged as thoroughly as the Nixon White House.” Each of the habitat’s four rooms was equipped with a wide-angle camera and an open microphone, which transmitted images via cable to a station (“Command Van”) perched on a hill overlooking the bay. The station comprised two adjoining but distinct areas: one section, under the leadership of the Tektite Watch Commander, featured a two-way video communication system linking topside and the habitat; in the other, scientists silently monitored aquanaut behavior via six eighteen-inch television screens, recording their observations on IBM punch cards. The system resembled Mission Control in Houston, but in practice was more like a tropical sting operation, with a bunch of shaggy psychology students from the University of Texas crammed into a stakeout van.

Aquanaut John VanDerwalker discusses life under surveillance in a 2010 interview with the authors.

Throughout the Tektite missions, the aquanauts were to deviate from protocol. Moments after the Tektite I crew entered the habitat, topside observers were shocked to witness aquanauts Ed Clifton and Rick Waller frantically disassembling the habitat’s air scrubbers, which filtered carbon dioxide from the air supply. Behind the apparatus was a cache of whisky and wine. (Clifton had arranged for the unauthorized supplies to be hidden within the scrubbers while the habitat was being prepared for shipment from the Philadelphia Navy Yard.) After removing the contraband, Clifton and Waller quickly put the scrubbers back together so as to avoid being poisoned.

3 “What different missions need may well differ,” wrote Walter Wilkins in “Isolation Research: The Methodological Context,” a summary of the proceedings of the NATO-sponsored “Symposium on Man in Isolation and/or Enclosed Space,” held in Rome in October of 1969. “There is, in a Stockholm museum, a copy of a letter from Sir Ernest Shackleton to his whisky supplier in Scotland, ordering 472 cases of whisky to be delivered dockside to his ship before his last expedition. We must conclude from this, I presume, that some of the glamour has gone out of exploration. I doubt that NASA or the equivalent Russian space authorities would order up such a morale builder. Indeed, perhaps not even the National Geographic Society would.”

Aquanauts knew their isolation was crucial to the broader goals of NASA’s habitability research; accordingly, topside chose not to intervene when they departed from established protocol, preferring to see how the crew behaved when left alone. (The alcohol remained in the habitat.) Transcripts from the missions show that aquanauts were acutely aware of being watched. They wondered how topside scientists perceived their actions, and devised skits and jokes for the amusement of their invisible observers. Interestingly, the concept of performance shifted over time: from a technical and ergonomic measure of a crew member’s ability to execute tasks, to a more expressly social notion of “mission performance” as a function of crew members’ ability to successfully interact with one another, to a literal performance spurred by the continuous gaze of psychologists.4

4 “The presentation of the body,” Carrie Lambert-Beatty writes in Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, “must be understood in its tensions and its correlations with spectatorial situations outside the realm of art; in dialectical engagement with the effects on the sense of time, distance, and bodily reality of the culture of information and spectatorship that had developed in the postwar United States, particularly with the remarkable escalation of television culture.”

Nutrient Cubes

“We know that astronauts have lost weight in every American and Russian manned flight. We don’t know why.”

—Malcolm Smith, DVM, and Charles A. Berry, MD, “Dinner on the Moon,” Nutrition Today, Autumn 1969.

“The overall male mean rating for lamb chops was 8.1, ‘like very much.’ The mean female rating, on the other hand, was 4.8, ‘dislike slightly to neither like nor dislike.’… Other items which were liked by the male groups but not the female groups included spaghetti and meat, green beans, broccoli, and ham loaf.… Salisbury steak was the least accepted item of all foods rated and was only used for two dives. Data indicated that acceptance of that product decreased considerably as it was repeated.”

—“Tektite II Food System,” report by the Department of the Interior, August 1971

NASA’s quest to create “food systems” may be the ultimate example of how the engineering of environments became mired in the banalities of everyday life on Earth. Before the Apollo mission, gastronomy had been limited to delivering adequate nutrition. Mealtime was considered a bothersome interruption to a very busy schedule, and food was designed to be consumed as quickly and effortlessly as possible. NASA carefully calculated the caloric and nutritional requirements of astronauts and optimized the process of food delivery in zero gravity. The result, for Mercury astronauts, was tubes packed with food paste and bite-size nutrient cubes. Despite careful testing on the ground, once in space the astronauts found the stuff unappetizing and uniformly lost weight.

Clifton and his fellow aquanauts began to deviate from the meal plan the first week of the inaugural Tektite mission in 1969, preparing Mexican food, which was designated as a snack, for dinner.

Food was not originally an area of study during the Tektite missions. Tektite I aquanauts rejected the initial efficient and pragmatic food plan—a menu that repeated every five days—in favor of one that combined premade frozen dinners with individually prepared meals made from fresh ingredients. (“This is more like it,” an aquanaut quipped in response to an Air Force report, “Food for Space Travel,” with a proposed thirty-day mission menu. “But couldn’t we have chili, enchiladas, tacos, and tamales?”) The first indication that meals were going to be more significant than scientists had thought was when aquanaut Ed Clifton, a San Francisco marine geologist and serious gourmet, unpacked: His personal provisions included a full set of spices and a tortilla press.

Clifton and his fellow aquanauts began to deviate from the meal plan the first week of the inaugural Tektite mission in 1969, preparing Mexican food, which was designated as a snack, for dinner. The second week, a home-baked, covertly delivered apple pie “suddenly appeared on the television monitors,” according to a 1977 General Electric memo. “At the end of the first month an aquanaut’s wife prepared a beef stroganoff dinner for the crew to celebrate their thirtieth day underwater. During the second month, food lists were sent to the surface on the average of three times each week,” with the groceries dropped into the vessel via airtight containers. Topside observers duly noted the importance of dining.

Mercury astronauts had complained about dining on tubes, but Tektite confirmed that food—and, more specifically, the pleasure of eating—were closely correlated to morale and mission success. “The dinner meal, sometimes lasting as long as three hours, was a great source of relaxation, group interaction, and work planning,” a 1971 Department of the Interior report concluded. NASA finally recognized that the quest to optimize crew performance had to consider personal preference (Dixie chicken versus salisbury steak) as well as caloric intake.

NASA used Tektite II to study possible food systems for Skylab. The food industry, supported by contracts from NASA, was hard at work creating frozen “convenience foods” that would require less time to prepare than conventional recipes. Stouffer’s was contracted to make “TV dinners” for the Tektite II crews, and psychologists monitored their eating habits and reactions to the food’s appearance and texture. (Like Sony, Crest, and every other company affiliated with NASA missions, Stouffer’s advertised its products as advanced solutions to the problems of modern life: “Everybody who’s been to the moon is eating Stouffer’s.”) But though NASA coordinators saw the “comprehensive” food system plan as an important stride toward a more palatable menu, the emphasis remained on easily quantifiable variables, diminishing the relevance of the qualitative elements of ritual and agency. “Although use of the frozen meals (which had only to be heated) markedly reduced time spent by aquanauts preparing meals and cleaning up,” the Department of the Interior report observed, “this time-saving was not reflected in higher work output.”

Stouffer’s advertisement, Life magazine, August 8, 1969.
Stouffer’s promotional flyer for Tektite II food system, ca. 1970.

Their Deepness

"Despite this year’s achievements, morale is not high among oceanographers or among industries serving that science. The bright dreams a few years ago that oceanographic research might rocket ahead rapidly the way that space research did have been dashed. Industry sources tell of cutbacks in privately-funded research, of expensive experimental submarines being put into drydock and of highly skilled technicians leaving the field.… Ironically, it was Vice President Agnew—an ardent advocate of a Mars trip—whom the Nixon administration used last June to tell oceanographers that needs for other national activities make unlikely any expansion of funds to study the seas."

—Harry Schwartz, “To Conquer ‘Inner Space,’” New York Times, August 24, 1969

Tektite, and the utopian vision of long-term underwater dwelling, faded from visibility almost as quickly it had emerged as a plausible reality. Despite the technical successes of both Tektite I and II, NASA and its collaborators, citing both the cost of continuing the program and a need to focus on other research areas, ended the program in 1970. Just weeks after the conclusion of the last Tektite II mission, the habitat was shipped back to GE’s storage facilities in Philadelphia, where it remained for several years. In the early 1980s, Harold Ross, former medical director of the Tektite program, successfully organized the transport of the habitat to the San Francisco Bay Area, where plans were made for an underwater research center. That ambitious design never materialized, and the habitat was installed at San Francisco’s Fort Mason for several years, then disassembled and sold for scrap in the early 1990s.

VanDerwalker on walkie talkie, Great Lameshur Bay, 1970. Photograph by Bates Littlehall.
Aquanaut Alina Szmant at former site of Tektite habitat, 2010.
Aquanaut John VanDerwalker at former site of Tektite habitat, 2010.
Doug Briggs, Tektite support diver, at former site of habitat, 2010.

Wortz’s vision of a habitable world has endured in the work and shared convictions of the aquanauts, many of whom built their careers around environmental concerns. Ann C. Hurley now works as a trial attorney for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the US Department of Justice. Alina Szmant speaks of herself as part of a community of extreme divers, including veterans of the US Navy’s Sealab program, who were convinced of the viability and value of deep-sea exploration and imagined themselves to be the forerunners of an underwater NASA—they would colonize the sea floor as the astronauts colonized the moon. Sylvia Earle, whom the New Yorker dubbed “Her Deepness,” served as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the early ’90s and continues to lead ambitious underwater expeditions; she has also cofounded a number of high-profile organizations dedicated to ocean preservation. Tektite seems to have quietly radicalized its scientists, who continue to act as foils to those who would resist a holistic understanding of Earth as a series of interconnected systems.

Beyond the cultivation of this zeitgeist, what was the utility of studying small groups in isolation, underwater or elsewhere? Were these findings truly applicable to a wider array of real-world situations? Forty years after the conclusion of Tektite, the attempts of Aquarian habitability researchers to use small-scale social experiments to plan perfect public housing or institutional food systems appear as artifacts of the Cold War-era technological sublime. And though postwar military technology enabled people to live and work in exotic environments, the history of habitability has an ominous aspect, too; the increased attention to the role of pleasure and taste, which characterized Tektite, eschews an abiding interest in the effects of pain and strategic deprivation. In his 1973 book Man in Isolation and Confinement, psychologist John Rasmussen links early isolation studies to the preoccupation with negative human responses to physical duress: “Would a major research program have been undertaken had an individual in a 1957 United States Antarctic team not developed a florid and highly disruptive schizophrenic illness while totally isolated with a small group of men on a long winter night?”

The pioneering 1954 study of sensory deprivation, Rasmussen notes, was prompted by sensationalized accounts of the brainwashing of American soldiers during the Korean War. More recently, in 2002, deprivation studies by James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, military psychologists previously employed by the CIA, provided the foundation for the “enhanced interrogation” techniques applied to Guantánamo Bay detainees. (In April of 2009, the CIA abruptly terminated its contract with Mitchell and Jessen, who are now widely discredited.) One Guantánamo interrogation handbook reprints a 1957 chart describing sensory deprivation and other forms of torture inflicted on American POWs in Korea.

The world of Tektite, while clearly more hopeful than Rasmussen's lineage, evinces elements of both sides of habitability's history, existing at a moment when qualitative experience was exploited to construct systems that could enrich life as well as systems that target it. Habitability has since, for the most part, become institutionalized: The progressive strain has filtered into environmentalism, while the impulse to administer, protect, or otherwise control bodies has largely evolved into the interdisciplinary field of human factors, which focuses on engineering human-machine interfaces. (NASA human-factors researchers were enlisted as advisers during the efforts to rescue miners in Copiapó, Chile, last year.) Nevertheless, the European Space Agency is currently simulating a manned flight to Mars by sealing a crew of six scientists inside a container in a research facility in Moscow for five hundred days. And despite the discontinuation of America’s manned spaceflight program in favor of partnerships with private aerospace companies such as Space-X and Orbital Sciences, President Obama confirmed last April that NASA is still devoted to missions ostensibly planned to “help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth.”

Female aquanauts decorate the Tektite habitat with environmentalist mobiles, July 1970. Photograph by Bates Littlehales.