The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Helium Speech - An Astronaut Calls the President of the United States

When you take a breath from a helium balloon and speak, your voice rises humorously. What happens when an astronaut does the equivalent and calls the President of the United States?

In 1965, Sealab II replaced Sealab I, 62 meters (200 feet) down on the ocean floor (photo at left). Sealab II was sometimes called the “Tiltin' Hilton" because of the slope of the site. Teams of "aquanauts" lived and slept inside, dry, breathing air pressurized to that depth. The Sealab project was under command of Dr. George Bond, Captain, U.S. Navy Medical Corps, affectionately called "Papa Topside."

NASA Astronaut Scott Carpenter (photo right) spent a record 30 days in Sealab II. After spending that much time at that depth, specific protocols of changing the breathing mixture and the pressure are needed to avoid problems from the dissolved gas that was absorbed while breathing the air at SeaLab pressure. Commander Carpenter did that inside a special decompression chamber, while breathing an air mixture containing helium. Yesterday's post How To Stay Underwater For A Month explains.

Helium changes heat transfer both inside and outside your body, and changes how fast sound can travel. Sound travels faster through helium than through air. That is the "Donald Duck" effect. People who inhale helium from a balloon and speak on the exhale have a distinctive humorous voice change. Funny voice is temporary, lasting only as long as helium is passing the vocal apparatus. (Helium can't support life. Don’t continuously breathe balloon or other helium source to get a few laughs talking funny.)

I had heard from my Navy friends that an old recording existed of Commander Carpenter trying to phone President Johnson for a formality of congratulations while still inside the recovery chamber breathing the helium mix.

Recently, my colleague Dr. Derrick Pitts, Director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and I were talking about space and underwater habitats. He told me that the recording of Commander Carpenter had been found, restored, and was available through NPR National Public Radio.

Click LBJ & the Helium Filled Astronaut to read the short story and listen with RealAudio in 14.4, 28.8, or G2 SureStream. (If link is not clickable, try

The description lists the event as 1964, but I think it would have been 1965. It doesn't matter. Enjoy the recording.

Over this summer, I hope to write you some interesting stories about decompression, scuba, space research, cool people involved, and my work living under the sea. Until then, here are related stories:


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Sealab photo thanks to
Photo of Commander Carpenter via Wikipedia
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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.