WHAT HE DOES
Builds seafloor landers that will go to the deepest trenches on Earth
where he does It
San Diego and over the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean
Adventure on the high seas—need we say more?
With the boat surging over ocean swells, a soaked and smudged Kevin Hardy reaches over the side and yanks a tether, freeing a 3-meter-long submersible. It sinks quickly into the waves—first the iron weight, then the long tubes that will collect water samples, and finally the bright orange spheres that protect its electronics. Hardy's latest oceanic probe is starting a 10.6-kilometer (6.6‑mile) journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on planet Earth. The probe will fall for 3 hours to reach that mysterious seafloor.
Exuberant and ruddy-faced, Hardy wipes the salty spray out of his eyes and shakes hands with the crew members. It has been a grueling day. Embarking from Guam in the early morning on a small former ferryboat, the team motored 130 km out to sea, rocked by high waves that caused a few of the scientists to go green around the edges. They reached a part of the trench called the Sirena Deep as the sun began to set and readied their equipment for the big plunge. The boat's depth finder, overwhelmed by the abyss beneath the hull, displays an absurd depth reading of only 8.5 meters.
The seafloor lander they're testing will play a role in a US $10 million mission that will send a human to the bottom of the Mariana Trench later this year. No one has been there since 1960, when a Swiss engineer and a U.S. Navy officer descended aboard the bathyscaphe Trieste. In the 52 years since then, only a few unmanned probes have been down to those pitch-dark deeps. But if all goes well, Chris Welsh, the cofounder of Virgin Oceanic, will soon become the third man to reach the nadir of the world. Four of Hardy's tough little landers are to accompany the manned Virgin Oceanic sub that Welsh will steer down to the ocean floor.
It will be the culmination of a mammoth engineering challenge. At the bottom, water will press on the sub with a force of 110 megapascals, or roughly the same pressure that would result from a large elephant standing on a postage stamp. Hardy's commands to his landers will be transmitted acoustically through more than 10 km of water. But that's all part of the fun for him—throughout his career he's always pushed to "go deep," as he puts it. "If there was a deeper place than the Mariana Trench, I'd try to go there too," he says. And the ferryboat is full of people who have caught Hardy's enthusiasm for the world's watery chasms. "I build teams as well as things," he says. "I love the part where you cross the finish line together."
Hardy has spent much of his life preparing for this challenge. He grew up in San Diego in the 1950s, part of a big, boisterous family. At age 7, he built his first marine vessel—a boat made of orange crates that used one of his little brother's cloth diapers for a sail. His plan was to go into marine or aerospace manufacturing, so at San Diego State University he majored in industrial technology manufacturing.
Between freshman and sophomore year, in the summer of 1972, Hardy knocked on doors at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, until he found a job there. He ran errands and loaded supplies onto ships as a lowly lab helper, but during his lunch hours he'd wander the halls of Scripps, popping into labs to talk to people about their work.