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National Research Council (US) Ocean Studies Board. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950—2000. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950—2000.

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Deep Submergence: The Beginnings of ALVIN as a Tool of Basic Research and Introduction of Featured Speaker Dr. Robert D. Ballard

Sandra Toye

National Science Foundation (ret.)

For oceanographers, names are special-especially when it comes to ships. Research ships carry names drawn from history, or names that reflect the marine environment where they work, or names that suggest noble qualities of character: Resolution, Endeavor, Challenger, Horizon, Oceanus.

So how is it that one of the most famous, productive, and glamorous research platforms in our inventory got the kind of name you associate with, say, your uncle?

The year was 1964. The place was Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For the better part of a decade, the Woods Hole Deep Submergence Group had been working with the Navy to build a viable research submarine. At long last, the task was about completed, and people had begun to talk about a commissioning ceremony, which meant that a name must be chosen.

The original Navy project name was Seapup. This reflected the stubby look of the sub along with the proper dash of military bravado, and many still favored the name.

Graduate students at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) had watched the chubby little boat evolve, and, with the usual perverse humor of grad students everywhere, had a number of pet names, most of which can't be mentioned in polite company. Their favorite was The Pregnant Guppy.

Paul Fye was the WHOI director at the time. For those of you who didn't know Dr. Fye, let me say that he was a courtly and rather stern gentleman, not given to flights of fancy. He took the name issue very seriously, consulting widely with colleagues, trustees, and other VIPs. He had settled on the name Deep Sea Explorer.

What Dr. Fye didn't know was that the issue was already closed. The engineers and scientists of the Deep Submergence Group, a tight-knit and slightly wacky group, had quietly selected a name and conned the Navy into accepting it. All of the engineering drawings, certification, and commissioning documents for the new sub already bore the name they had chosen. Navy tradition and Woods Hole dignity be damned—the sub was going to be Alvin.

Reportedly, Dr. Fye was horrified. To understand why, you must know something about American popular culture in 1964. At the time, the hottest musical group in the country was called Alvin and the Chipmunks. Their specialty was to record songs at 33 rpm and then re-record them at 78 rpm. The results were goofy nasal singsongs that, amazingly, were leading the Hit Parade. Dr. Fye was sure that this strange bunch in the Deep Submergence Group—his own employees, for heavens sake—had gone and named this wonder of technology for a falsetto soprano chipmunk!

Imagine his relief to learn that Alvin was at least named for a real human. It was in fact a contraction of the name of one of his staff members, oceanographer Allyn Vine, whose fertile imagination and dogged salesmanship had been instrumental to the project. So Alvin it was, and Alvin it would remain.

Let us now, like that musical group, Alvin and the Chipmunks, hit the fast-forward button. It was nearly a decade later that DSRV Alvin , the National Science Foundation, and the larger oceanographic research community came together.

The year was 1973. The Navy, which had funded virtually all of Alvin's operations since its christening in 1964, was under great pressure from Vietnam-War-era funding restrictions. The Navy informed Woods Hole that the upcoming renewal of the contract would be something called a "no-fund equipment loan." This was a nice way of saying that all of the operational and scientific funding for the Deep Submergence Group was about to end. If Woods Hole could find other support, fine—the Navy would be willing to let it keep the sub. If not, Alvin was destined for mothballs or a museum.

Dr. Fye, who was still the director of Woods Hole, appealed the Navy decision, but their problems were overwhelming. The answer was No. He went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a relatively young agency with a statutory charge to promote manned submergence—but the entire annual budget for that part of NOAA would scarcely pay for a few weeks of Alvin operations—no again. He came to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the negatives kept coming. The answer again was no. How could this be? How could NSF reject this unique and promising tool?

Truth be told, Alvin's first decade of operations had focused more on engineering and operational matters than on science. Only a few scientists, almost all of them from Woods Hole, had ever used it. Although these few were excited about its potential, the early dives hadn't produced anything worldshaking in the way of research results.

In the oceanographic community at large, most people considered Alvin a Woods Hole toy. They derided diving in general as "Gee-Whiz" stuff, okay for popular magazines, but not for serious science. Reflecting these views, NSF advisory committees said that if the Navy wanted to mothball Alvin, it would be no great loss to ocean science. NSF should definitely stay out of it.

Dr. Fye was not easily discouraged—he decided to make one more try to keep Alvin in business. He had tried diplomacy. He had tried appeal to reason and to the better instincts of the community. This time he would appeal to politics.

Now, we need to understand that in those days, the Massachusetts congressional delegation had more than the usual measure of clout. In the Senate, of course, there was Senator Edward Kennedy. In the House, a fellow named Thomas P. O'Neill just happened to be from Massachusetts. He also just happened to be Speaker of the House.

After a few discreet phone calls, a meeting was set up for Dr. Fye with the "big three" of federal ocean science— the Director of NSF, the Administrator of NOAA, and the Oceanographer of the Navy. At the end of the meeting, it had been agreed that the three agencies would keep Alvin going for three years for a last-ditch test of its capacity for research.

This is the point at which the Alvin problem landed on my desk. In the summer of 1973, I had been hired by NSF as a program associate in the Office of Oceanographic Facilities and Support. This sounds rather grand, but in reality, a program associate is down near the bottom of the NSF food chain. My job was to do anything that nobody else in the office wanted to do. And nobody else wanted to deal with Alvin.

Well, we sometimes forget it, but NSF is a government agency, and politics and government do go together, even in the world of science. My bosses gave me unmistakable marching orders: make the Alvin agreement work.

I was new and green and not very knowledgeable. But I did know that over the long run, the only thing that will sustain a program at NSF is the support and endorsement of the scientific community. I began to look for allies who would be willing to take on the unpopular task of testing, once and for all, the real fitness of Alvin for research.

One ally was UNOLS—the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. Itself a young organization trying to establish credibility, UNOLS somewhat reluctantly agreed to take on scientific management of Alvin as a national oceanographic facility, thus opening access to scientists throughout the community.

My next ally was, of course, our speaker today, Dr. Robert D. Ballard. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Bob did what all good Midwesterners do—moved to California at the earliest opportunity. There he found one of the guiding passions of his life, the ocean.

After earning his bachelor of science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Bob, a distinguished ROTC graduate, faced service in Vietnam. After two years in Army intelligence, he made another critical decision—he'd rather be in the Navy! The transfer was made, and a short time later the Navy introduced Lt. (j.g.) Ballard to another of the guiding passions of this career, assigning him to the Deep Submergence Group at Woods Hole, then in the early phases of testing DSRV Alvin.

When Bob and I met in 1974, he was a newly minted Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island. He had just accepted the first of what would be a career-long series of faculty appointments at Woods Hole. As an aspiring young assistant scientist in the Marine Geology and Geophysics Department, Bob was doing the things that everyone must do at this point in an academic career. He was intent on making his mark in the research community, getting enough grant money to keep his team together, and achieving tenure.

There was nothing in his job sheet that said he had to work with Alvin, let alone help NSF and UNOLS develop a scientific constituency for deep submergence. But Bob's earlier career had already convinced him that manned submersibles, properly used in conjunction with remote sensing, were powerful tools of research. During the three years of the initial Alvin agreement, he was a tireless missionary to his colleagues.

Over the intervening 25 years, Bob Ballard has been at the center of many of the most exciting discoveries in science, and so has Alvin —often together. Bob's richly productive research career includes Project FAMOUS (French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study) and the discoveries of the Galapagos Rift communities and the black smokers of the East Pacific Rise.

His list of honors, awards, and publication:, is as remarkable for its diversity as its extent. His scientific work has been augmented by stunning accomplishments in marine history and archaeology, including discovery of the Titanic, Bismark, and Yorktown, and the exploration and protection of many other maritime relics.

Upon retiring from Woods Hole with emeritus status last year, Bob became president of the Institute for Exploration and chairman of the JASON Foundation for Education, based at Mystic, Connecticut.

Although many of us have settled down 'o quieter and less productive lives, Bob has continued, full steam ahead, to explore the oceans. He is still never too busy to share his love of this word with the rest of us. It is a great honor to welcome him to this symposium today.

Copyright 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK208813


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