Williams was nearly 250 miles up in space, aboard the International Space Station. Shank was about 2 miles deep in the Pacific Ocean, aboard Woods Hole’s deep-sea sub, Alvin. You can listen to their conversation and view a video feed from the space station on Woods Hole’s site.
The 20-minute video is worth at least a few minutes of your time, if only for the startling immediacy of realizing there are three people at any moment going about their daily routine in zero G. (Inkling mag has a neat commentary about how we have colonized space without really noticing.)
Williams is thoughtfully decked out not in NASA regalia, but in WHOI cap and sweatshirt (is this a gallant gesture on the part of NASA’s publicity hounds? or evidence of a weird coincidence: Williams’s sister, Dina Pandya, is a Web specialist at Woods Hole). Another astronaut bobs around in the background and occasionally takes pictures. It’s pretty cool just to watch Williams’s necklace drift around in mid-air.
They happen to be passing over the eastern Pacific, more or less directly over the tiny sub. But that’s not to say it’s a direct connection: the space feed goes to Houston, gets bounced back up to a satellite, then over to Alvin‘s mother ship, the Atlantis, and finally beamed down to the watery depths.
It’s a stark reminder of the difficulties ocean explorers face in an age when we’re used to seeing ant-eye views of Mars and fly-bys of distant comets. Williams’s voice arrives, crystal clear, on the backs of radio waves, having clocked 250 miles almost instantaneously. On the other end, sound waves carry Shank’s replies laboriously through the depths and back to the surface. There’s a three-second delay, and the sound quality sounds at times like a Starfleet transmission during a Klingon attack.
The pair take turns answering questions sent in by schoolkids. The first one is “Have you seen any aliens?” Williams hasn’t, but Shank describes 10-foot tubeworms clustered around volcanic vents, and other odd beasties. In other words, it may be glamorous in space, but it’s lonely. The action’s down here.