Sunday, December 19, 2010

In Praise of Alvin

No, we’re not talking about the animated musical group, Alvin and the Chipmunks created by Ross Bagdasarian (stage name David Seville) in 1958. A classic novelty record act, the Chipmunks themselves were named after the executives at their original record label. But hey, I digress (you distracted me, didn’t you?).

Alvin is a 16-ton, manned deep-ocean research submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The submersible was named to honor the prime mover and creative inspiration for the project, Allyn Vine, a scientist at WHOI. Alvin was put into service in mid 1964 (5 months after the Beatles stormed the Ed Sullivan show and 5 years before man walked on the moon). This was a time when French oceanographer and SCUBA inventor Jacques Cousteau was all over our black & white TV sets showing us how to explore our watery planet. The oceans were spoken of as man’s salvation for their mineral wealth, aquaculture potential and maybe future human habitats. High School guidance counselors assumed that a large percent of their graduating classes would be employed in some facet of ocean-related careers. As it turned out, not-so-much.

But Alvin has had a stellar run and this month will be sidelined for 18 months of refurbishing – not its first make-over in its long career. The three-person vessel allows for two scientists and one pilot to dive for up to nine hours at 15,000 ft. The submersible features two robotic arms and can be fitted with mission-specific sampling and experimental gear. Alvin has taken 12,000 people on over 4,000 dives to observe the life forms that must cope with super-pressures and move about in total darkness. Some claim that research conducted by Alvin has been featured in nearly 2,000 scientific papers. Talk about publish-or-perish!

On 17 March 1966, Alvin was used to locate a submerged 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb lost in a United States Air Force midair crash between a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling over Palomares, Spain. Three of four unarmed hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52 landed on Palomares while a forth fell into the sea. After much searching Alvin found the missing bomb found resting nearly 3000 ft deep.

A year later Alvin encounter a somewhat less dangerous situation as it was attacked by a swordfish during a dive at 2,000 ft. The swordfish became trapped in Alvin's skin, and the submersible made an emergency return to the surface – where the swordfish was recovered and cooked for dinner.

Another Alvin accomplishment was locating the wreckage of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), a nuclear armed Skipjack class submarine which sank for unknown reasons off the coast of the Azores in 1968. The Alvin was able to obtain photographic and other environmental monitoring data from the remains of the Scorpion.

Late in 1968 Alvin, was lost as it was being transported aboard the NOAA tender ship Lulu and two steel cables snapped when it was being lowered into the water for a planned dive. The three crewmembers escaped, but Alvin flooded and sank in 5000 ft of water. Severe weather prevented the immediate recovery of but it was photographed on the bottom in June 1969 and found to be upright and apparently intact. It was decided to attempt recovery of Alvin; although no object of that size had ever been recovered from a depth of 5,000 feet. In late August 1969, another submersible was able to secure a line and safety slings on the Alvin allowing it to be hauled up to near the surface where it was slowly towed back to Woods Hole.

Alvin continued to serve marine science as its months under water at those depths and cold temperatures provided a real-life experiment. Alvin was so intact that lunches left on board were soggy but edible. This incident led to a more comprehensive understanding that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying bacteria at increased depths prevented biological decay. Researchers found a cheese sandwich which exhibited no visible signs of decomposition, and was in fact eaten. But the submersible itself required a major overhaul by WHOI. Earlier in my career I worked with an electronics technician who had been responsible for replacing all of the wiring and electronics on Alvin during this overhaul.

Certainly from a popular events perspective, Alvin’s most famous efforts may have come from its involvement in the exploration of the wreckage of RMS Titanic south of Newfoundland in 1986. She carried Dr. Robert Ballard and two companions to the wreckage of the great liner. Many of the photographs of the expedition have been published in the magazine of the National Geographic Society which was a major sponsor of the expedition.

WHOI has a detailed history of Alvin for those who care to delve further and NPR recently ran a story about this most-famous submersible and the 18 month refurbishing it will undergo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was so interesting! I had no idea it was that old or had such an interesting history!