By Don Finley
SAN ANTONIO (AP) – For almost 50 years, the deep-diving Alvin has been exploring the ocean floor – even retrieving a lost nuclear bomb between some notable scientific discoveries.
Now, the Navy-owned, civilian-operated science vessel is being refitted with a tougher new hull designed by Southwest Research Institute – one that will allow it to reach 99 percent of the ocean floor, instead of the approximately 60 percent it can explore now.
And that will make U.S. ocean research programs competitive again with Russia, China, Japan and France – all of which have vessels that can go deeper than Alvin, said Joseph Crouch, manager of the marine structures and engineering section at the institute.
“Roughly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by the world’s oceans – deep, dark and at one time almost impenetrable,” said Crouch, who discussed one of several current projects at the institute’s 64th annual meeting.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “today only about 60 percent of the earth’s oceans are available to the United States for … research. That leaves 40 percent still unreachable to us.”
Although it’s many miles from the nearest ocean, Southwest Research Institute has been designing and building deep-diving vessels since the 1950s. It was involved with some of the original work on Alvin, built in 1964 as a collaboration of the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Alvin has had a colorful history. In 1966, it retrieved a hydrogen bomb lost at sea after the B-52 carrying it collided with a refueling jet near Spain. In the 1970s, it found a surprising abundance of exotic life among hotwater vents on the ocean floor, giving rise to the idea of chemosynthesis as an alternative to photosynthesis as a basis for life. And perhaps most famously, it photographed the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986.
To extend its depth from 2.8 miles to 4 miles took some doing. The chamber containing the small crew is basically a pressurized ball within Alvin. The new hull for that ball had to be larger and stronger, but about the same weight as the old one, at 11,000 pounds. It was created from three huge ingots of titanium welded together using electron beams.
The three-member crew’s chamber, which at a depth of 4 miles must withstand 9,500 pounds of pressure per square inch, should be completed by the end of the year.
From the ocean depths to outer space, the institute’s scientists are also helping determine the hazards that astronauts will face when they travel to Mars, said Donald Hassler, a program director with the institute’s space science division.
A coffee can-sized instrument designed by institute scientists to measure radiation is onboard NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which launched Nov. 26. The lab will land a wheeled robot vehicle on the planet’s surface to figure out how hospitable it will be for human exploration.
“We are searching for elements needed to support life – obviously water, but also things like carbon-based materials,” Hassler said. “But also things that characterize the life-limiting factors, things that would destroy a life. That’s the radiation environment.”
The institute’s research for government and industry clients generated $581 million last year, up from $548 million in 2010. It employs 3,046 scientists and staff.