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Rebuilding Alvin: Lisa Smith (Photo by Cherie Winner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Rebuilding Alvin: Lisa Smith

A series on the people who reassembled the iconic sub


From the beginning of 2011 to May 2013, Alvin, the U.S. science community’s only human-occupied submersible dedicated to deep-sea research, underwent a thorough overhaul and upgrade to greatly enhance its capabilities.

Now in the final stages of the first phase of the upgrade, the iconic sub is being painstakingly reassembled, piece by piece, by a one-of-a-kind team of engineers, technicians, and pilots at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). They also carefully inspect and test each component to ensure its reliability and the safety of those who will use to sub to explore the depths.

Here, administrative assistant Lisa Smith discusses the thorough documentation required for the project:


These are the Alvin records going back for decades. We have to keep every piece of correspondence with the Navy. The Navy certifies us—they have to give the OK on all certified items before we can dive.

Each binder is one system on the sub. So for instance, there’s one for emergency batteries. Everything to do with them is in there—all of the documentation, all of the drawings, the schematics, the different revisions. We’ll submit the original designs and any changes for each system, and the Navy may come back with comments asking for changes, so then we’ll submit a revision. We have to track everything. All of this has to be kept forever, so that we have traceability on anything to do with the emergency batteries. 

Sometimes our engineers get a new idea for how to do something. They create a drawing; they actually build that system; and then it’s, ‘You know, that didn’t quite work out as we thought it would. Let’s tweak it.’ But in order to do that, you need to submit a revision to the Navy.

One thing that we have worked on for quite a while is a hazard analysis, which is basically looking at the vehicle and seeing where there’s a potential for anything that could go wrong. Here’s one, ‘Submersible launched in excessive water depth.’ That’s a hazard, because Alvin is only certified to 4,500 meters. The form shows how we prevent it from happening. We’ve gotten it down to where we think that can never happen, because we will always determine the water depth before launching the vehicle.

We are working right now on the Alvin operations manual. It has already been through many revisions. This is the manual that tells you, step by step, what to do, every day you’re out there. This has everything in it. We’re actually required to keep this in the submarine. 

I’ve been at WHOI and working with the Alvin Group for two years. The whole time I’ve been here, they’ve been here, working on the upgrade. So it’s going to be really different when they go to sea. Once the guys are out to sea, I’ll be booking their travel, submitting timecards, basically taking care of anything they aren’t able to do while at sea. It’s been great with them here—to get to know them so well. I’m just sad that they’re going to be leaving.

I’d love to go on a cruise. I want to see what it’s like, and I want to see what their day-to-day life is like, because I think that if I know that, I will be able to help them and advocate for them better.


Alvin is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by WHOI. The current upgrade has been funded largely by the National Science Foundation, with support from private donations to WHOI.