Susan K. Avery, PhD

Remarks on the Occasion of the Christening of the R/V Neil Armstrong

Susan K. Avery
Anacortes, Washington; March 29, 2014

Good afternoon.

I was a teenager when the “small step” was taken on the moon.  It was one of those moments.  Like so many others, I distinctly remember where I was and what I was doing:  in the car, listening to the radio, racing back from a northern Michigan vacation with my family to my Aunt’s house in East Lansing – we made it just in time to see the landing on TV.

I swelled with pride to be an American.  We had dared the unknown. We had reached a lofty goal. We were united as a country.   And we shared it with the world – “one giant leap for mankind”.

There is deep connectivity between sea and space: science, technology, robotics, confined spaces, darkness, teamwork, universal – or should I say bottomless fascination and risk.  Astronauts train underwater; oceanographers work underwater.  Both want to know more about the unknown.  These ideas are embodied in the notion of exploration – going where few others have gone before, to answer questions, solve problems and expand our understanding of the world and beyond.

Recognition of this sea-space connection is not new.  The space shuttles Atlantis, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavor are named after ocean research vessels.  The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution operates the current day Atlantis, which is the third in a line of ships of that name dating back to our founding in 1930.  We have had collaborative missions between the space shuttle Atlantis, the International Space Station, the R/V Atlantis and the submersible Alvin.

The name for the newest Navy research vessel is well chosen.  Every time Neil Armstrong is said, it will evoke courage and exploration.   “Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution” and Neil Armstrong will be linked, sea and space, for at least two generations.

The Neil Armstrong will be a high tech marvel, on a 40 year mission to provide scientists access to the sea.  We know some of the big science questions that need study – such as climate change, ocean acidification, and the mysteries of the ocean ecosystem; we know we need to continue leadership in developing sensor technologies and underwater vehicles; we know we need to maintain and upgrade far-flung ocean observing systems; and we can anticipate there will be emergent events that will need a robust oceanographic response like Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima.

What is really exciting is what we don’t know.  The R/V Knorr will be retired when the Neil Armstrong comes on line, having ably served US oceanography beyond its calendar service life.  Who could have known when the Knorr was christened – one year before that first walk on the moon - that hydrothermal vents and the Titanic would be discovered from her decks?  The Neil Armstrong is destined for such discoveries – we just don’t know what they are yet.

Last updated: April 3, 2014