Since the beginning of 2011, Alvin, the U.S. science community’s only human-occupied submersible dedicated to deep-sea research, has been undergoing a thorough overhaul and upgrade that will enhance its capabilities. The improvements include a new personnel sphere, updated command-and-control systems, enhanced lighting and high-definition imaging systems, new syntactic foam to provide buoyancy, and more and larger viewports, or windows.
The centerpiece is a larger personnel sphere with improved interior design to enhance the comfort of pilots and researchers who will occupy it. The titanium sphere is also designed to withstand pressure at depths of 6.5 kilometers (4 miles), with the eventual goal of allowing Alvin to dive beyond its current 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) diving capacity.
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, mechanics Vic Miller (left) and Joe Harvey (right) describe their work shaping and finishing the syntactic foam that will give Alvin its buoyancy:
Vic: This is, like, a 30-year-old piece of Alvin syntactic foam. The foam is the buoyancy for Alvin. We’re cutting and getting it ready to re-glue. This piece here had some damage in the center of it.
Joe: Normal wear and tear. We’ve been doing a lot of repairs on the old foam, and shaping the new foam, and drilling and modifying it as needed.
Vic: The majority of the foam on the rebuild is new.
Joe: We add inserts for cameras or this or that. Or you get the new foam in and it doesn’t exactly fit right, so you’ve got to modify it, fit it again, bring it back, modify it, fit it again.
Vic: Tell how bad it is.
Joe: Just dusty. Dirty. When we’re cutting the heavy foam, it’s everywhere.
Vic: The foam is basically an epoxy with glass spheres. We’re sanding and cutting epoxy and glass. It’s just dirty work. You don’t want to be doing it long-term without protection.
Joe: I’m a mechanic. I’ve been at WHOI for about a year and a half. My family has the marina right across the street, Woods Hole Marine, and I found my way over here.
Vic: I’ve been here four or five years. Before I came here, I worked in a body shop for over 20 years, with the shaping of the plastic and the fiberglass repair on the Corvettes or other types of vehicles.
Joe: Cars, submarines—he’s expanded. Planes next!
Vic: I have a shop at my house. I do a lot of car service work and I still do some bodywork. I restore old cars as a hobby.
Joe: It’s more than a hobby. People from all over come to him.
Vic: Cars, foam, it’s all bodywork. The shaping, knowing the grits of the sandpaper and the finish, the priming and painting and such. It’s very, very similar.
Joe: I haven’t worked with syntactic foam before. I started in the shops, and then when the foam projects came in, that’s what Vic and I have been put to, kind of our specialty.
Vic: We make a good team. I’m a little more experienced in some of the bodywork, but Joe picks up on it very quickly. It’s nice. If you get in with the wrong people, it doesn’t work. We know what we need to do and we get in there and make it happen. It’s just overwhelming what it really takes to build something. Whatever you think it takes, double it. And maybe double it one more time after that.
Joe: There’s bad days with it. It’s tough, it’s just been every day for five months.
Vic: And it’s dusty, dirty, dirty work. It takes its toll.
Joe: It beats up on you a little bit. But at the end of the day, when you leave, you say, ‘You know what, that was a good day. We didn’t make any huge mistakes, and it’s a really cool project.’
Vic: It’s rewarding. You know, the guys need it done, they appreciate it. They know we take it very serious and we do the best we can, and we’re competent.
Joe: It’s great being involved with Alvin. It’s really a big, historic thing and to be part of it is really special.
Vic: Big time.
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.