Millions of people flock to St. John each year to enjoy the warm Caribbean waters and sunshine. There seems to be a special ‘call of the sea’ that lures people to come, and stay, for a while. Here at Ocean Runner, we hear it all the time! Perhaps it is the crystal clear water, or the bright azure color of the sea, the white sandy beaches, or something else. We know St. John is special, but did you know that NASA felt the same way? Here is a little-known story about St. John and NASA’s Aquanauts that may make you love it here even more!
It was February 1969 and NASA was preparing to launch the Apollo 11. It would be our first attempt to land a man on the moon. There were many unknowns, to say the least. NASA needed to study the affects of extreme isolation on its astronauts (and the effects of spectacularly bad space-food on morale) and so it looked to our world’s ocean to provide the right environment for its observations. In coordination with the United States Office of Naval Research, teams of four men and four women were selected to be “Aquanauts” – to live in isolation in the deep blue. They would be under 24-hour observation in an underwater habitat 50 feet below the surface of the water for weeks at a time. Where was this underwater habitat? Right here in St. John!
Designed and built by General Electric, the habitat was called “Tektite” and lived in Lameshure Bay! Today there is a museum at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) dedicated to the Tektite project. Free and open to the public during weekdays, the museum offers a rare glimpse into the slightly bizarre history of underwater scientific research. True to its time period, the museum houses the actual news and magazine articles published during the project. These articles, from major publications like TIME and the New York Times, highlight just how much we know, and how much we still have to learn, about our world oceans. (They also have really funny headlines and classic ads that are sure to make you chuckle, and your kids ask questions!). You will also see the amazingly primitive-looking scuba gear that the Aquanauts used to conduct record-breaking dives, and get a chance to see to-scale models of the Tektite’s interior living spaces!
So, if you are looking for a fun day cultural day on St. John, take a field trip out towards Lameshure Bay and stop by VIERS. You can pack a picnic lunch from Sam and Jack’s Deli. Don’t forget to bring your snorkel gear so you can swim out into Lameshure Bay after your visit, or book a boat trip with Ocean Runner and make Lameshure one of your swim stops! Then, you will see just why NASA thought St. John fertile grounds for their first at-sea mission!