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Our Ship Comes In R/V Neil Armstrong sails into San Francisco Harbor at the conclusion of the first leg of its inaugural voyage in late 2015. (Image by Bay Aerial, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Our Ship Comes In

Research vessel Neil Armstrong joins WHOI fleet


I woke up the first night out of Anacortes, Washington, when the ship dropped out from under me and I levitated off my bunk. Then came the sound of shuffleboard in the conference room one deck above. The only trouble was, there’s no shuffleboard on the research vessel Neil Armstrong.

It was Halloween 2015 in the Northeast Pacific. We were in the first hours of the first voyage of the newest ship in the U.S. academic research fleet, and we were already plowing through 15-foot waves. But the ship’s motion made it feel more like we were facing much heavier seas. A hammering gong rang through the hull to announce the trough of each wave, while the shuffleboard game continued through the night. As I lay awake, I kept thinking back to something Kent Sheasley, Neil Armstrong’s captain, told me on the bridge just before we cast off: “No one knows how the ship will ride. We haven’t taken her out into open water yet.”

Then a crowd of well-wishers from town (including one Halloween Frankenstein), who had come to think of the 238-foot-long Neil Armstrong and its crew as their neighbors, slipped our lines from the dock and we were away. Come what may, our bow pointed down the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the open ocean.

The first vague idea of what would become Neil Armstrong took shape in the 1990s, when the U.S. Navy began to lay the groundwork to replace some the largest Global Class research ships, which were well into their third decade of service at the time. In 2002, the Navy announced plans to build a new Ocean Class of vessels. They were intended to cost less to build and operate than the Global Class ships without compromising their ability to remain at sea for weeks at a time and still carry scientists into nearly all forbidding parts of the ocean not covered by ice.

In the decades since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, just nine new large research ships have been built and added to the U.S. academic research fleet. Two are retiring and being replaced by Neil Armstrong and its sister ship, Sally Ride. That leaves only seven large ships—our equivalent of ocean-going space shuttles—and a dwindling number of small- and medium-sized ships to explore two-thirds of our planet’s surface.

There are strong links between outer space and ocean exploration. NASA’s space shuttles were all named after famous ships that explored the ocean: Endeavor after the ship Capt. Cook sailed to discover Australia and New Zealand; Discovery after the ship that founded the colony in Jamestown, Virginia, and later explored the Northwest Passage; and Atlantis, the nation’s first ship built expressly for ocean-going research. Even before the shuttles, the first space missions gave us a new perspective: For the first time, we could look back on Earth from space and see just how the ocean dominates the face of the planet we call home.

In 2012, the U.S. Navy announced that the two newest oceanographic research vessels would be named after pioneers of space exploration. But where the shuttle Endeavour alone cost $1.7 billion to build, the Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride together cost U.S. taxpayers about $200 million.

While Navy officials worked with the science community to hammer out details of the ships’ design, four oceanographic institutions competed for the job of operating the new vessels, and in 2010, the Navy awarded the first of the class to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). What was then known as AGOR-27 would become the latest in a long line of WHOI-operated ships that began in 1930 with the first Atlantis. Five more years passed as the ship slowly took shape, first on paper and then in steel on the shipyard of Dakota Creek Industries (DCI).

All that planning and hard work culminated on a rainy autumn day in Anacortes when the last of the lines were cast off. A double crew, almost all of them veterans of Knorr, was on board to learn their new ship and bring it south to San Francisco, the Panama Canal, and its homeport in Woods Hole, and eventually into the historically fierce conditions of the North Atlantic.

Build it and they will come

Gary McGrath was working as chief engineer on Knorr, when the plans to replace it with a new ship moved from conference calls and meeting rooms to the shipyard. For much of the three-plus years it took to build the ship, McGrath made Anacortes his home away from Cape Cod. His tenure as WHOI’s representative at DCI coincided almost exactly with the college careers of two of his children. Armstrong’s inaugural voyage marked a third graduation in four months for McGrath.

Neil Armstrong and its sister ship Sally Ride were assembled by DCI in large sections known as blocks. Each of the major hull blocks was constructed individually and then fit together like massive Legos. The method is meant to speed the building process, but it also requires a high level of skill and attention to detail.

This was also the first time that DCI built a ship for the U.S. Navy, or anything as complicated as an Ocean Class research vessel. “A commercial vessel is basically just a cargo hold with an engine and a bridge,” said McGrath. “There are systems on Armstrong you’ll never find on a commercial ship. The amount of [electrical and fiber-optic] wire they had to run alone was phenomenal. But they did a great job. Their steel work is excellent. Their welds are perfect. This is one tough little ship.”

McGrath knows how and where almost every part was installed, how tricky marriages between components were made, and what still needs to be improved. For him, Neil Armstrong will always be a work in progress. “When you look at a flat piece of paper, it doesn’t really tell you just how everything is going to fit. Now that we’re operating, we’re always going to find things that need to be changed.”

Aboard Armstrong’s first voyage in November, the rough weather continued through the next day and much of the following. Our course south toward San Francisco meant that we had to take the southeasterly swells on our stern quarter. The ship, not yet freighted with science equipment, rode high and skittishly. The shuffleboard game turned out to be some loose chairs, which were easily remedied, but as the crew made their rounds, they began taking note of things they would have to adjust.

Countless small things cropped up and were quickly fixed. Bigger things, like the hammering, which turned out to be caused by the way the anchors fit against the bow, would require a design team and the services of a fully equipped shipyard. Thankfully, a shipyard in Charleston, S.C., was the next stop after San Francisco and the Panama Canal. There, the list that McGrath and his engineers began compiling right off the dock met the equally long list for the final phase of the ship’s outfitting.

Carrying data

When David Fisichella looks at Neil Armstrong, he sees data—more than any ship in the academic research fleet has ever produced. “It’s what she does,” said Fisichella, who heads the team of technicians in the WHOI Shipboard Scientific Services Group (SSSG) that operates the scientific instruments on the ship. “Some ships carry cargo or oil. Ours carries data.”

After Armstrong’s initial transit from the Pacific, it arrived in Charleston in December, where Fisichella and his team helped WHOI’s Ship Operations group turn Neil Armstrong from a functioning ship into one of the most advanced research vessels afloat. As part of the construction contract, the Navy provided nearly $10 million to purchase and install the scientific instrumentation—from the multibeam sonars on the bottom of the hull to the communications array on top of the wheelhouse. Once calibrated and fine-tuned, all of these will make it possible for the ship to investigate organisms living in the ocean, map the seafloor from shallow coastal waters to the deepest depths, examine interactions between the sea surface and atmosphere, and probe currents beneath its hull. (See “Shipshape and Well-Equipped” below)

In many respects though, it’s what can’t be seen just by looking at the ship that sets Neil Armstrong apart from other ships in the fleet. Though it’s still too early to tell for certain, observations during Armstrong’s initial cruises indicate that its fuel consumption will be noticeably less than other ships. At the same time, its marine diesel engines comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to reduce exhaust emissions from large, ocean-going ships. The separators that remove oil from seawater used as coolant and ballast meet and often exceed international limits for oily water discharged back to the ocean. In some cases, the discharged water will be cleaner than when Armstrong takes it in.

But one of the biggest advances is in the ship’s hull design and overall construction. The keel is designed to keep bubbles away from the acoustic sensors mounted on the bottom of the hull, something that should greatly improve scientists’ ability to map the seafloor and water column. In addition, much of the ship’s machinery, from engines to air-conditioning units, is mounted on vibration-absorbing shock absorbers to reduce the noise that the ship radiates into the water. The final analysis is yet to be written, but early tests indicate that the ship is much quieter than the design specifications.

“It’s a lot of ship in a compact package,” said WHOI Vice President of Marine Operations Rob Munier. “And we’re going to ask it to do a lot.”

Taking a new research vessel out of the shipyard is not like taking a new car out of the lot. It will probably take a few years, he said, before the crew, technicians, and scientists finds the ship’s “optimal sweet spot” when all systems—ship, instrument, and human— are aligned to maximize performance. The increased complexity of Neil Armstrong‘s suite of sensors and engineering systems means that technicians and crew have to maintain a high level of performance in conditions that are often nicely referred to as “adverse.”

The ship’s system to deploy and recover scientific equipment overboard offers a step up in safety, with fewer people needed to handle lines in rough weather, but it has more moving parts and more delicate electronics that must operate flawlessly time and again while at sea. The same is true of the ship’s staggering array of sensors, communications equipment, propulsion, and monitoring systems. These modern advances offer researchers the ability to learn more about how the ocean works and how it affects us on shore—at a time when rapidly occurring changes on our planet demand our greater attention.

“New technology like this always reinvigorates the [ocean science] community,” said Jon Alberts, executive secretary of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), the agency in charge of coordinating operations and research on the 21 ships in the U.S. academic fleet. “The community has been waiting a long time for this ship and is watching its progress very closely.”

But the increased level of complexity also requires a greater level of knowledge and care, especially in the open ocean far from a shipyard. “When I go on the ship these days, my techs say, ‘Welcome aboard, just don’t touch anything,’ ” Fisichella joked.

What’s in a name?

The meaning attached to the ship’s name isn’t lost on Capt. Sheasley. He and the crew transferred en masse from the retired Knorr, after earning a reputation in the scientific community for getting the job done no matter what the sea threw at them. Sailing on a ship named after someone who got the job done at Mach 6 or 250,000 miles from home just makes them stand a little taller.

The effect of Armstrong’s name on others became clear about 20 miles from San Francisco. We were approaching the sea buoy that marked the entrance to San Francisco Harbor, where we would pick up our harbor pilot for the passage through the Golden Gate. Over the radio, a vessel traffic controller guided us toward the northern buoy. At a designated location we’d start looking for the fast-moving boat carrying our pilot, whose job it is to know the ever-changing seafloor and currents of the harbor.

When it was our turn, the controller gave us rendezvous instructions and then hesitated a moment. Would it be all right, he asked a touch sheepishly, if we took on four pilots? We looked around at the towering bulk of an outbound oil tanker, lightly loaded and riding high in the wind and waves. It could easily fit us in one of its holds, but we knew from radio traffic that it was carrying just one pilot. Four? For us? Capt. Sheasley just chuckled. “Everyone wants to see the ship named Neil Armstrong,” he said, before keying the mic and replying that of course we would welcome them on board. One of the mates went to the galley and got more coffee cups.

Whether they were there to see the ship or just because they needed a ride to shore was unclear. But when the senior pilot walked down the gangway after we’d tied up to the dock, he made a beeline for the bow and asked the first person he could find to take a picture with the name Neil Armstrong blazing white-on-blue behind him.

Even for those like third mate Josh Woodrow, who is too young to remember the Space Race or that iconic first step by a human on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s name carries great weight. It crystallizes a sense of purpose that continues to pull scientists and crew to sea to learn more about our planet and the ocean that makes life on Earth possible.

“It’s really about exploration and discovery,” said Woodrow. “A boat named after Neil Armstrong just embodies that sense of exploring, learning new things, and trying to be the first to find out what’s out there.”

Shipshape and Well-equipped

John Kemp has spent as much time on boats as on land over the past 30 years, putting scientific instruments into the ocean and bringing them back. Kemp is the at-sea operations leader of WHOI’s Mooring Operations, Engineering and Field Support Group. To him, a ship is a giant floating puzzle. He needs to be able to pack a ship with gear, move that gear around, and deploy it piece by piece in conditions that make standing still a challenge. The first thing he looks at when he walks on a ship is the size and layout of the deck’s work area and the size and position of the ship’s crane.

He was aboard the research vessel Neil Armstrong for a cruise in February, when crew and technicians began testing handling and operations of various instruments and equipment on the ship for the first time. During that trip, he was finally able to answer a question that had been nagging him for quite some time: Is it big enough and flexible enough to handle big loads?

“You look at schematics for two years and wonder how it will do,” he said. “But when you finally see it, you can tell it’s going to be great. I think people are going to be pleased.”

More cruises are planned throughout the spring and fall to test everything from the layout of the ship’s lab to its collection of acoustic instruments, including two multi-beam echo sounders designed to operate at different depths. The EM-122 is particularly suited to survey the ocean floor all the way to Challenger Deep, if needed. To this, the ship adds an EM-710, which is optimized for shallow water. Neil Armstrong and its sister ship, Sally Ride, will be the only ships in the U.S. academic research fleet equipped to conduct high-resolution seafloor surveys almost anywhere the ships can sail.

Scientists are also interested in studying the region between the ship and the seafloor. For this they have three acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs) that can scan the water column at different frequencies to reveal the invisible structure of water at varying depths and resolutions. But the crown jewel of these acoustic instruments is the EK-80, a multi-beam, multi-frequency echosounder that go way beyond the capacities of its single-beam, single-frequency cousin, the fish-finder. The EK-80 can not only detect the presence and abundance of marine life beneath the ship, it also offers the potential to differentiate among species of fish and other marine life hidden beneath the surface. “It’s like going from a black-and-white TV to color,” said David Fisichella, head of WHOI’s Shipboard Scientific Services Group.

For the engineers, Neil Armstrong offers plenty to be excited about. In addition to clean-burning diesel-electric generators, it has variable-frequency DC propulsion, which means less wear and tear on critical components and higher efficiency. The new ship’s integrated controls provide access on touch screens in the engine room and bridge to virtually every critical system, from propulsion and navigation to electrical load to heating and air-conditioning to ballast. And for those times when a little extra help is needed, the navigation system can be monitored and diagnosed from shore.

But many early and anticipated users of the ship agree, the most important part of the ship’s systems are the humans on board to run them. For that, said Kemp, the Neil Armstrong excels in ways that no shipyard could design. “Having the Knorr crew on board really elevates it.”

—Ken Kostel