The Apollo 11 Moon landing in the summer of 1969 captured the world's attention and had everyone looking skyward. But while Michael, Neil, and Buzz were swiftly heading away from the surface of the Earth, NASA was also involved with another unprecedented voyage travelling in the opposite direction. Only no one was watching.
A small research submarine, called the Ben Franklin, carried a crew of highly-skilled explorers to locations never before visited by humans. Much like the astronauts headed to the lunar surface, the submariners placed themselves in great danger to expand our scientific knowledge and scratch that uniquely human itch to explore the unknown.
NASA oceanographer, Dr. Gene Carl Feldman, sums up the parallel efforts:
"I grew up in the 60s, a decade of exploration. We were going to the moon and we were going to explore and colonize the sea. The sea was the next frontier just as space was the next frontier.
There were two culminating expeditions: one to the Moon, one to the Gulf Stream. These missions were the ultimate voyages of exploration for their respective disciplines. There was no space mission greater than Apollo 11. And there was no expedition to the undersea world greater than the Ben Franklin. What was amazing was that both of these missions took place at the end of July in 1969."
The Gulf Stream Drift Mission was an endeavor with many widely-varying scientific goals. Its core objective was to map and study the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic Ocean's northward-flowing current of warm water that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe and Africa. The effects of the Gulf Stream are wide reaching. It had often been the subject of previous scientific study, including pioneering work by Benjamin Franklin. What made this effort particularly unique is that the 6-man crew and the myriad instrumentation were not housed on a surface ship. Rather, they remained cocooned in a submersible vessel for the entire 30-day voyage covering more than 1400 miles (2250km).