It is a 14-foot-high steel sphere installed on a pedestal. To get to the hatch on top, I climb a vertical ladder, then descend another ladder to access an alternate universe. The “room” consists of a small pilot’s seat and another seat that can accommodate two more passengers on either side of the pilot. As I gaze around, my hosts squeeze in to make room for me, withdrawing the ladder and tucking it against the back wall.
In front of you is a panel with numerous knobs and switches. The windows to the exterior are three modest portholes. Along the walls are rows of oxygen canisters and two carbon dioxide scrubbers. We’ll be fully sealed off after the hatch is closed; the oxygen canisters will gently release life-giving air, while the scrubbers will filter the air in the cabin, removing carbon dioxide. It resembles a space capsule, except that gravity is present.
This is the human quarters prototype for India’s human submersible, Matsya 6000, which aims to carry three aquanauts to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, 6,000 metres below sea level. Work on Mission Samudrayaan, India’s audacious deep-sea crewed voyage, which is set to sail in 2024, is well underway. The National Institute of Ocean Technology is where we are. This institute, which began with five individuals in a room at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1993, currently has a 50-acre site in Velachery.
It is the country’s leading research centre for ocean technology, including desalination plants to provide fresh water to islands, beach restoration, tsunami warning and weather forecast systems, and even ocean fish farming. NIOT is modest in comparison to the Indian Space Research Organisation, which has grown into a behemoth with multiple centers—ten scientists in the core team building Matsya 6000, and eight working on the miner Varaha-1. “However, every scientist has spent more than a decade at sea.” “That’s why I call them youthful veterans,” explains NIOT director G. A. Ramadass.
“In a decade, NIOT will be a world leader in creating ocean technology, if not ahead of the pack, then on par with it.” In 2021, India will launch the Deep Ocean Mission, which will rely on new technologies developed by NIOT. Samudrayaan is the flagship project. India is not the first country to send people to the ocean’s depths. Underwater missions are carried out by the United States, Russia, France, China, Japan, and Australia. With their crewed submersible DSV Alvin made its first mission to a depth of 1,800m in 1965, the Americans got a lead start.
Depths sea voyaging has recently become touristy, with people with money climbing into private cars to see the deep, just like they are hopping onto spacecraft for a spin about the planet.
In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron took a submersible excursion to the Mariana Trench’s deepest point (10,908 metres below sea level). Victor Vescovo, a businessman, went further deeper in 2019, reaching 10,927 metres and becoming the first man to reach both the peak (Mount Everest) and bottom of the earth. So, what makes the case of Samudrayaan unique? To begin with, it will be a technology demonstration, with India becoming the sixth nation to explore the deep ocean.
More importantly, it will mark the beginning of our era of human-powered exploration of the Indian Ocean’s mainly uncharted waters. “We’ve surveyed the Indian Ocean extensively with scientific gear, but nothing beats the human sight,” Ramadass says. Submersibles, unlike space rockets, which are typically single-use (though reusable technology is being developed), can be used for multiple trips.