The strategic imperatives of the Cold War put a premium on aerospace, ballistic missile and rocketry research. As an indirect result, breathtaking gains were made in outer space exploration, so much so that by the late-1960s, more was known about the surface of the moon than the floor of the earth's oceans. The Navy's contribution to oceanographic research did not completely wither away during this time, yet the first ship used by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to support scientists for non-military research, USNS Josiah Willard Gibbs (T-AGOR-1), was a converted seaplane tender that fought in the Battle of Surigao Strait.
A decade later, when former naval aviator Neil Armstrong was training in 1967 for the first manned mission to the moon's surface, the keel was laid in Bay City Mich. for a new class of dedicated deep sea research vessel that would reenergize deep sea exploration. Delivered in 1970 to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass., the 244 foot-long Earnest Knorr (AGOR-15), named for the man who led a 25-year effort to chart and survey the world’s oceans a century before, would ultimately prove instrumental in helping oceanographers, geologists, and other scientists form a much greater understanding of plate tectonics and confirm the existence of hydrothermal vents as well as the otherworldly life residing there.
RV Knorr is also popularly known for her role as host to Dr. Robert Ballard and the scientific team that found RMS Titanic in 1985, after completing a classified mission to survey the remains of the ill-fated submarines Scorpion (SSN-589) and Thresher (SSN-593). Although the discovery was Knorr's greatest brush with fame, the mission was but a small part of her 44-year career, in which she traveled 1.35 million miles (the equivalent of more than two round trips to the moon) on journeys from the Arctic to the southern oceans and hundreds of places in between. Lessons learned during the decades of Knorr's service were taken into account as plans for a successor began to take shape during the 1990s.
In September 2012, just a few weeks after Neil Armstrong passed away at the age of 82, the Navy announced that the newest class of oceanographic research ship would be named for him. Christened on March 28, 2014, and launched a few days later, RV Neil Armstrong (AGOR-27) passed her sea trials in August 2015 and was officially delivered to the Navy on September 23, 2015. The 238-foot-long research vessel recently stopped in Hampton Roads on a verification cruise from the shipyard where she was built in Anacortes, Washington, to her new home port in Woods Hole, Mass.
"We run everything--[the Navy] holds the pink slip," said Kent Sheasley, a Massachusetts Marine Academy graduate who worked his way up from an able seamen to first mate on RV Knorr over the last two decades and who is now the captain of RV Armstrong. Sheasley noted that they were nearing the end of their fifth verification cruise, in his words, to "verify that the ship is ready to do real paid service, because at $45,000 a day, you want to be sure."
Completed in 2014, RV Neil Armstrong sports a "Made in USA"
label just below the bridge on her starboard side. (Photograph by
Considering that Armstrong was in development for the better part of two decades, it might sound surprising that the research vessel is slightly shorter than her predecessor, her 40-day endurance is approximately two weeks less, and she can embark fewer scientists than RV Knorr could. Despite this, Armstrong possesses notable advantages over her predecessor such as a more advanced dynamic positioning system, greater fuel economy and cleaner exhaust, and her engines also produce less than half the underwater noise that RV Knorr produced. This is particularly important because Armstrong also has the most advanced research sonar array the Navy possesses.
Another improvement in design involves the ability to add modular trailers containing anything from industrial repair equipment to self-contained Remotely Piloted Underwater Vehicle (ROV) control centers that can now be bolted to Armstrong's aft deck.
The average stateroom an embarked scientist could expect to use aboard RVArmstrong. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)