Jacques Piccard

[Fr. pee-kar]

Jacques Piccard (born July 28, 1922) is a Swiss explorer and engineer, known for having developed underwater vehicles for studying ocean currents. He is one of only two people (as of 2008), along with Lt. Don Walsh, to have reached the deepest point on the earth's surface, the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench.

The Piccard family

Jacques Piccard was born in Brussels, Belgium to Auguste Piccard, who was himself an adventurer and engineer.The Piccard family is noted for undertaking challenges. Jacques' father Auguste Piccard twice beat the record for reaching the highest altitude in a balloon, in 1931-32. The Piccard family has the unique distinction of having made both the highest flight and the deepest dive of all time

Jacques father, who already set record heights by flying in his balloon, started using the buoyancy technique used in ballons for developing under water submarine bathyscaphe. Jacques initially started out his career by teaching economics at University of Geneva while continuing helping his father improve the bathyscaphe to demonstrate its potential for operating in deep waters. Together they built three bathyscaphe between 1948-1955 which made records depths of 4,600 feet, 10,000 feet and the last one was brought by the government . With this success, the younger Piccard abandoned economics to collaborate with his father on further improving the bathyscaphe and demonstrating its practicality for exploration and research.

Submarine Designs

Jacques Piccard constructed four submarines:

Challenger Deep Mission

Jacques sought out for financial help from US Navy, which at that time was exploring various ways for designing submarines for underwater research. Jacques was enthusiastically welcomed to US for demonstrating his bathyscaphe,now named Trieste. Impressed by his designs Navy bought the vessel and hired Piccard as a consultant. Recognizing the strategic value of a workable submersible for submarine salvage and rescue, the Navy began testing Trieste for greater depths.

With his Trieste able to reach depths as far as 24000 feet, Piccard and his colleagues planned on a even greater challenge-a voyage to the bottom of the sea.On January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh reached the ocean floor in the Challenger Deep with his bathyscaphe Trieste. The depth of the descent was measured at 10,916 meters (35,813 feet), later more accurate measurements in 1995 have found the Challenger Deep to be less deep at 10,911 m (35,797 ft). The descent took almost five hours and the two men spent barely twenty minutes on the ocean floor before undertaking the 3 hour 15 minute ascent.The bathyscaphe carried no equipment and planned no experiments; the mission's purpose was merely to prove that the depth could be reached. The descent progressed without incident until 30, 000 feet, when the crew heard a loud crack. They continued the dive, however, finally touching down in "snuff-colored ooze" at 35, 800 feet.

When they reached the featureless seabed, they saw a flat fish as well as a new type of shrimp. Marine biologists later disputed their observations, claiming that no fish could survive the 17, 000 psi pressure at such depths. After discovering cracks in the viewing windows, Piccard cut the voyage short. After a 20-minute stay on the bottom, they began dumping ballast for their return to the surface, and the damaged vessel returned to its escort ships without incident.

The historic dive received worldwide attention, and Piccard wrote an account of it, Seven Miles Down, with Robert Deitz, a renowned geologist who had help plan the mission. A planned return expedition, however, never occurred. The Trieste was expensive to maintain and operate. It was incapable of collecting samples and could not take photographs and so had little scientific data to show for its voyages. The original vessel was retired in 1961, although a rebuilt version later located the lost remains of two lost nuclear submarines, Thresher and Scorpion.

Ben Franklin (PX-15) Mission

On July 14, 1969, just two days before the Apollo 11 launch, the Ben Franklin, also known as the Grumman/Piccard PX-15 mesoscaphe was towed to the high-velocity center of the Gulf Stream off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida. Once on site, the Ben Franklin with its six man, international crew descended to 1,000 feet off of Riviera Beach, Florida and drifted 1,444 miles north with the current for more than four weeks, reemerging near Maine.

A crew of six was carefully chosen. Jacques Piccard was the mission leader; Erwin Aebersold, another Swiss, was Piccard’s handpicked pilot and main assistant to Piccard and project engineer during the Franklin's design and construction. Grumman selected a Navy submariner named Don Kazimir to be captain. The U.S. Navy Oceanographic Office sent Frank Busby to conduct a bottom survey along the drift track over the Continental Shelf and the Royal Navy sent Ken Haigh, an acoustic specialist, who studied underwater acoustics and ran sonic experiments up and down the water column throughout the mission. The sixth man was Chet May. As early as 1967, NASA had established a Space Station Office and began to study the feasibility of humans living in space, in completely contained environments, for prolonged periods. May was a NASA scientist; his specialty was ‘man working in space.’ Wernher von Braun heard about the Franklin mission, visited the sub in Palm Beach, and considered the mission a kind of analogue to a prolonged mission in space. He appointed May as a NASA observer to accompany the mission and his role was to study the effects of prolonged isolation on the human crew.

In addition to studying the warm water current which flows northeast off the U.S. East Coast, the sub also made space exploration history by studying the behavior of aquanauts in a sealed, self-contained, self-sufficient capsule for NASA. The mission is the focus of a program that has aired on the Science Channel.

During the course of the dive, NASA conducted exhaustive analyses of virtually every aspect of onboard life. They measured sleep quality and patterns, sense of humor and behavioral shifts, physical reflexes, and the effects of a long-term routine on the crew. The submarine's record-shattering dive influenced the design of Apollo and Skylab missions and continued to guide NASA scientists as they devised future manned space-flight missions.

Named for the American patriot and inventor who was one of the first to chart the Stream, the 50-foot Ben Franklin was built between 1966 and 1968 high in the mountains in Switzerland for deep-ocean explorer Jacques Piccard and the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. It has been restored and now resides in the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vancouver, Canada.


Jacques Piccard is the founder of the Foundation for the Study and Protection of Seas and Lakes, based in Cully, Switzerland.

Jacques' son Bertrand Piccard is continuing his family traditions. He commanded the first flight around the world nonstop with a balloon, in March 1999.


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