June 21, 2017

Meet the R/V Neil Armstrong

Posted by Laura Guertin

I guess once you train as an oceanographer and have been out to sea, you are drawn to learning about new ships and the latest-and-greatest in ocean technology. That’s certainly the case for me. When I heard that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was going to have its newest research vessel, the R/V Neil Armstrong at Fleet Week in NYC, and there would be a social media social for the ship, I knew I wanted to apply for the social to not only tour the ship but to learn as much as I could for my own professional knowledge and to share with my students. I blogged on my Journeys of Dr. G site about my personal experience/reflection on seeing the R/V Neil Armstrong. Here, I’m sharing my professional impressions and more about the ship itself.

You can view some aerial video footage of the ship when it arrived in Woods Hole, MA, for the first time on April 6, 2016. Feel free to also take a virtual tour of the inside of the ship and visit the R/V Neil Armstrong home page and digital issue of Oceanus Magazine that featured the R/V Neil Armstrong.

First, why is an ocean-going vessel named after an astronaut? Articles from the archives of WHOI’s Oceanus Magazine provide the answer.

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. — Ken Kostel, Our Ship Comes In, Oceanus Magazine

The significance of the name “Neil Armstrong” is not lost on the crew or by those that see the ship in dock or on the water. WHOI has written a biography detailing Neil Armstrong’s career. Neil’s wife is a sponsor of the ship, and she donated his Congressional medal which is proudly displayed on the bridge.

Beyond the name of this 238-foot-long ship, which cost just under $1 million to construct and can support 44 people (20 crew, 24 scientists for ~40 days), what’s the significance of the R/V Neil Armstrong?

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. — Ken Kostel, Our Ship Comes In, Oceanus Magazine

So what do you make sure you put on a new oceanographic research vessel? Communication technologies are certainly important, everything from wi-fi throughout the ship to live two-way communications for ship scientists to collaborate with land-based scientists, and for outreach to classrooms to occur. The standard wet lab and dry lab with a flexible set-up for tables and equipment are present. And this is the first ship I have ever seen fume hoods on board, and with wider hallways and an ADA-compliant stateroom for scientists with visual/mobility needs (and if my notes are correct, the R/V Neil Armstrong has already hosted two blind scientists during research cruises). Multiple types and sonar abilities are part of the equipment package, as well as the ability to lower everything from CTDs to the REMUS SharkCam.

There’s so much more I could share about WHOI and the R/V Neil Armstrong – you can explore my Storify that captures my time from the social media social and other blogs posts from Climate Mama. But I wanted to do this blog post to remind everyone, from scientists and faculty to K-12 teachers and informal educators, to share how scientists “do” science. With the undergraduate students I teach, I see a disconnect between the scientific data I give them to work with and the process of how that data was collected. Our students (and I’ll argue the general public) do not know what is involved with collecting data on the ocean, or what equipment is used, or the importance of people like marine mariners in the pursuit of science. Please take a moment to share a random fact you learned from this post, or go further and explore some of the links I provided. Communication of how science is done and why it matters is more important than ever, and I thank WHOI and the crew of the R/V Neil Armstrong for giving their time and attention to sharing what they do with others (scientists and beyond!).