One of the questions that we in the Alvin operations group get asked, perhaps more than any other, is “How did you get this job?” And the thing is, each one of us, technicians and pilots, has a very different answer, both in terms of practical career choices and in terms of the motivations that brought us to this strange life aboard the good ship Atlantis. Some of us have, in a past life, worked with underwater technologies related to submersibles, and all of us have some sort of mechanical or electrical background, but the common denominator among us all seems to be that there is no common denominator.
When the question is presented to me, a lot of times I flash back to the submarines my friend Dave and I built when we were ten years old. I can’t honestly say they were particularly functional, in the traditional sense, as they were constructed of two high-back wooden chairs with a quilt draped over the top. We stocked them with broken car radios my mom gave to us so we would have lots of buttons to push, but the only communications we’d reliably pick up were whale songs from a floppy record that we found in an old issue of National Geographic. Excursions from the personnel sphere were periodically required to turn the record over.
I remained fascinated with both the ocean and space sciences in the intervening years (to me they were two faces of the same beast), but I didn’t consciously pursue deep submergence as I approached college. Had anyone suggested working with a manned research submersible, I would’ve found it about as reasonable, as professional goals go, as a career on Titan. Instead I worked for a small aerospace company for a couple of years, but found (as many of my Alvin colleagues today will attest) that days of computer design behind a desk was becoming increasingly untenable in the face of… well, something else. But what, exactly, I didn’t know, though I suspected it would take me back towards the blue outer spaces here on our own planet.
A new stint as a bartender & bike courier in Boston afforded in flexibility what it perhaps lacked in compensation, and I was able to volunteer each Friday at the New England Aquarium. Spending all day with the Dive Department and their Giant Ocean Tank reignited my interest in the ocean, in just spending time underwater. I eventually found myself enrolled in an eight-month full-time commercial diving program, but as with many of the “career” moves I’d made thus far, I hadn’t really figured out how I would tie this to work with the science community or ocean exploration.
While I was working with an offshore dive operation in the Gulf of Mexico, a new scientist friend mentioned his descents in Alvin, and something snapped in me when I realized that mere mortals might, under the right circumstances, find themselves ten thousand feet down in its cold metal sphere. I moved on to working dive operations in nuclear power plants around the Northeast, which enabled me to focus more aggressively on the possibility of working with the Alvin group.
It turned out that, after all of the tangents & turns I’d taken in my working life, I had ended up with a backstory that combined the technical and the practical, and was sufficiently broad & unorthodox as to make me a decent bet. After a period of borderline-pathological persistence on my part, I’m glad the Alvin group took an interest in me. They did not, however, take an interest in my broken car radios.