In 1965 Dr. Jacques Piccard met with Grumman Aerospace Corporation and an agreement was struck between Piccard and Grumman to build a Mesoscaph - a submersible which could operate in the intermediate depths, for the exploration of the Gulf Stream. The project called PX-15, began construction on March 16, 1967 in Switzerland. The final touches to the submersible were made in Palm Beach, Florida a year later. PX-15 was launched on July 26, 1968 and was christened Ben Franklin on August 21, 1968 after the American scientist who was the first to systematically study the Gulf Stream. The next seven months were devoted to testing the submersible through a series of dives to ensure that it was ready for the beginning of the Gulf Stream Drift Mission on July 14, 1969.
The Gulf Stream Drift Mission's primary objective was to drift the maximum distance along the core of the Gulf Stream at varying depths safely for 30 days. In addition to the oceanographic studies conducted on board, NASA was interested in the submersible as an analogue for a space station. NASA engineer, Chet May, accompanied the mission to observe and evaluate the crew at work, monitor the environment within the submersible, and to relate the experience to the development of future NASA space stations.
Ben Franklin was uniquely designed for this mission, its complex variable ballast system enabled the crew to maintain the submersible's position at specific depths as they drifted in the Gulf Stream. In addition, the submersible had four motors that could be moved independently of each other and could be tilted around an axis of 130 — this provided great maneuverability. The special design of the Ben Franklin also enabled the scientists to conduct acoustic (sound) measurements in a way that had never been done before. They continuously measured the Gulf Stream's velocity, salinity, temperature, turbidity, the sea floor geology, and gravitational and magnetic anomalies. Over four million oceanographic measurements were made during the voyage. The Gulf Stream Drift Mission was a great success. The submersible drifted for 30 days and 11 hours and covered a distance of approximately 2400 kilometres at an average depth of 200 metres. They made excursions to depths between 400 metres and 600 metres. All aspects of the submersible performed well and the mission provided valuable information for NASA for future space travel.
After the Gulf Stream Mission the Ben Franklin was used for a few more research dives until it was seriously damaged on April 12, 1970 when it struck a coral reef off the Bahamas after its mother ship's mooring lines broke.
In 1971 Horton Trading Limited bought Ben Franklin and moved it to British Columbia. Horton planned to expand Ben Franklin by adding an extra portion to carry divers and a "lock-out" diving chamber and would be used for commercial work in the waters around British Columbia. However, this project was never carried out and the Ben Franklin was moved to Vancouver Shipyards in North Vancouver and stored there for many years. In December 1999, Horton Trading Ltd. donated Ben Franklin to the Vancouver Maritime Museum. With the help of volunteers, local companies, and museum staff, the submersible was cleaned, repainted in its original colours, and re-assembled. In 2003 the museum rededicated the Ben Franklin as an educational exhibit and hosted a reunion for the original crew members.
Dr Jacques Piccard, Scientific Leader of Mission, Bureau Piccard
Born in Belgium in 1922, he was the son of the famous scientist and explorer, Auguste Piccard. He worked with his father in the design of the first bathyscaphs and the Trieste. Jacques Piccard piloted Trieste on 65 dives including the record-breaking dive down 35,800 feet in the Marianas Trench (the deepest part of the ocean). Together with his father they built the first mesoscaph for the Swill Exposition in 1963. This mesocaph carried more than 30,000 passengers into Lake Geneva. In 1966 he became an exclusive consultant with the Grumman Corporation. During the Gulf Stream Drift Mission Dr. Piccard was responsible for the coordination of all the scientific experiments as well as piloting the submersible.
Donald J. Kazimir, Captain, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation
Kazimir received a degree in Industrial Engineering and served in the US Navy, including duty on board submarines. He joined Grumman Corporation in 1967. He was responsible for the vehicle operations, crew comfort and safety and was the chief pilot. At 35 years old, he was the youngest of all the crew.
Erwin Aebersold, Pilot, Bureau Piccard
Aebersold was trained as an engineer and was a long time member of the Bureau Piccard staff. He was responsible for the design of the pilot station in the earlier mesocaph, Auguste Piccard. He served as chief engineer and shop master during the European construction phase of Ben Franklin. He was second to the Captain (Donald Kazimir) in piloting and all other vehicle operations.
Roswell F. Busby (Frank), Scientist, US Naval Oceanographic Office
Frank Busby joined the US Naval Oceanographic Office in 1960 where he could apply his Oceanography degree. He was the Branch Head of the Deep Ocean Survey Vehicles Project, responsible for determining the design characteristics, oceanographic sensors and operational techniques for a 20,000 foot depth deep ocean survey vehicle. He was responsible for conducting the oceanographic experiments during the mission and for evaluating the possibilities of Ben Franklin for future civilian and navy uses.
Kenneth Haigh, Scientist, US Naval Oceanographic Office
Kenneth Haigh joined the US Naval Oceanographic Office in 1968 as an exchange scientist from the Royal Navy Scientific Survey (Britain). An electrical engineer by training, Haigh was a specialist in acoustics and was responsible for conduction scientific experiments while on board Ben Franklin.
Chester B. May, Scientist, NASA
Chet May was a pioneer in space system maintenance who worked for NASA as a researcher. His role on board Ben Franklin was to collect information about environmental conditions, maintaining the submersible, power management, and physiological and psychological reactions of the crew. His observations would be supported by the over 65,000 photos taken by the cameras installed through out the submersible.
Records in this collection consist of technical reports and correspondence related to the construction and operation of the Ben Franklin/PX-15 during the Gulf Stream Mission in 1969. Also included are promotional materials including press kits; brochures; crew biographies; status reports for potential NASA projects; contracts; operation manuals for equipment on board the Ben Franklin; invitations from the christening ceremony of the Ben Franklin; publicity materials for the VMM rededication ceremony including an audio tape of speeches from the ceremony and a videocassette of local news coverage; issues of Grumman “Ocean Systems Newsletter” and “Grumman Plane News”; a crest from the 1969 Gulf Stream Drift Mission; and records from the mesoscaph “Auguste Piccard” at the Lausanne National Exhibition, France.
Also included in the collection are photographs of the Ben Franklin. The images depict construction of the submersible; promotional interior and exterior views; in drydock in West Palm Beach, Florida; the crew at work; and the restoration and rededication ceremony at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.