Diving with a Purpose
Diver Erik Denson

Image above: Kennedy Space Center engineer Erik Denson explores an underwater site. Image credit: NASA
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Just like the astronauts, Erik Denson has explored where few dare to go. The chief of the Electrical Design Branch in Kennedy Space Center's Engineering Directorate is a certified Professional Association of Dive Instructors, or PADI, divemaster.

Denson and other "Diving with a Purpose," or DWP, participants recently received a 2009 National "Take Pride in America" award in the Outstanding Public Private Partnership category from the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

Denson is one of the original four participants and lead instructor of DWP, a volunteer underwater archaeology program. Formed in 2004, the program began as a partnership between the National Park Service and National Association of Black Scuba Divers, or NABS, Southern region to document shipwrecks in Biscayne National Park off the coast of Homestead, Fla.

"This award confirms that we are doing something positive to preserve and document our country's history so that it can be shared for generations to come," Denson said.

Before the award ceremony, all of the winners toured the White House.

"The most interesting part of the tour was the various rooms, Green Room, Blue Room and the Red Room, and how the various administrations left their marks," Denson said.

Denson has been diving for 17 years and is the current president of DIVERSe Orlando, the local chapter of the NABS. Several Kennedy workers are members, but only one other, Howard Kanner with United Space Alliance, participated in the DWP program.

Denson has trained more than 20 scuba divers to document underwater archaeological sites for historical preservation. He created the curriculum for the course and developed a manual for DWP.

Training includes underwater mapping and trilateration. Denson said trilateration is the method archaeologists use to map and measure the various sections of a shipwreck.

Divers fan the sea floor to expose the wreck and document the site using a ruler, pencil and slate with Mylar paper.

"During the course, a diver can spend up to one-and-a-half hours surveying a 6-by-6 foot section of a site, not moving from that area." Denson said. "This type of diving is not for everyone. It takes diligence and concentration."

The size of DWP has grown from four divers in 2004 to 54 in 2009. The group's first project was documenting underwater shipwreck sites in Biscayne National Park. It is the largest marine park in the National Parks system. Denson said divers assisted in performing congressionally mandated condition assessments of several archaeological sites.

Denson has logged more than 500 dives, including the Red Sea, Grand Cayman, Curacao in the Bahamas, and Cozumel and Cenotes, an underground spring, in Mexico.

His deepest dive was 135 feet in Pensacola, Fla., where an aircraft carrier, called the USS Oriskany, sunk intentionally as part of the artificial reef program.

Most recently, he completed a local dive in Boynton Beach, Fla.

"I enjoy underwater photography and that’s what I did on this dive," Denson said.

At Kennedy, Denson works in the Engineering Development Lab on the Constellation Program's electrical ground support equipment design for Ares I.

Originally from New York, he has a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Howard University and a master's from Polytechnic University.

There's another brave endeavor Denson currently is working on: attaining his pilot's license.
Linda Herridge, Staff Writer
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center