Dream Jobs 2012: Building Ocean Explorers

Ocean engineer Kevin Hardy’s creations plumb the depths of the Mariana Trench

4 min read
Photo of Kevin Hardy.
Photo: Roxie J. Cirino

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.

Kevin Hardy

IEEE MEMBER

AGE 58

WHAT HE DOES
Builds seafloor landers that will go to the deepest trenches on Earth

FOR WHOM
Virgin Oceanic

WHERE HE DOES IT
San Diego and over the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean

FUN FACTORS
Adventure on the high seas—need we say more?

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.

Plenty of scientists found the ebullient 18-year‑old charming, and one offered to take him out on a two‑week research cruise. The expedition so thrilled Hardy that he kept volunteering for night watches aboard the ship. “I stayed awake for three days straight," he remembers, “I didn't want to miss anything." One cruise led to the next, and when Hardy graduated college, Scripps offered him a job as an ocean engineer. He ended up working there for almost 40 years, building buoys studded with sensors and sediment samplers for Scripps's scientists.

Throughout his Scripps years he sought out the men who had been involved in the historic Trieste expedition of 1960. As he listened to their stories, he gradually resolved to go to the Mariana Trench himself. “At some point," says Hardy, “it became a consuming goal: 'I'm going. If it's me in a rowboat with my machine, I'm going to the trench.'"

Luckily enough, he met Chris Welsh, an accomplished sailor and adventure seeker, who founded Virgin Oceanic with Sir Richard Branson for the sole purpose of visiting the world's deepest trenches. In early 2011, Welsh hired Hardy as a consulting engineer to build the unmanned landers that will accompany Virgin Oceanic's manned submersible to the ocean bottom. The timing was right for Hardy, as he had retired from Scripps in 2011 and was looking for new challenges.

In the grand Mariana Trench expedition planned for 2012, Hardy's landers will sink down before the sub, like the advance team for a head of state. They'll be equipped with lights, cameras, and equipment to take samples from the bottom. Welsh, who will pilot the one-man sub on the first dive, can then navigate between the landers, which will stake out spots of scientific interest. The team hopes to come back not only with a rip-roaring adventure story but also with samples of sediment, water, and maybe even tiny invertebrates from the landers—not to mention some great footage. “When the pilot gets down there, we can order the landers to turn on their lights and cameras to watch the sub glide in," Hardy says.

But at the moment, Hardy has more immediate concerns. On the ferryboat, floating on 10 km of water, he and his colleagues ping the descending lander and get a response: It's at 1400 meters and falling fast. Once the lander reaches bottom it will collect its water samples; then Hardy will release the anchor, returning the lander to the surface with its payload. He expects the lander to surface at 1:30 in the morning, Hardy says, cheerfully planning another night watch.

For more about the author, see the Back Story, “ Over the Trench."

This article originally appeared in print as “Going Deep."

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