Coral Banks
Oct. 16, 2002


By: Andy Shepard, National Undersea Research Center, UNCW

I spent the last half hour watching the sunset out my porthole, leaving a pink orange smear across the ocean horizon. A few weeks to just hours earlier, I was thinking we would not make it out here.

For the past five months, I spent a good deal of my time getting to this point. The cruise is a joint effort between NASA and NOAA, ocean and space enthusiasts. The seafloor survey is a no-brainer—a winner for all the major programs: NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of NOAA) get a fantastic support ship for a fraction of the cost of most similar ships. NASA (and the USA) have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful environmental project of interest to Florida's coastal companies and their many employees.

Fig. (The deck crew of the M/V Liberty Star lower the transducer and sonar pole overboard to a waiting team of divers.)

Yet, we almost did not make it off the ground. The obstacles we encountered however, were not due to lack of vision or effort. Like many new ventures, the biggest problems were due to new procedures and new people.

My program, the National Undersea Research Center at UNCW, supports thirty or more oceanographic missions each year. Each requires a routine of paperwork and signatures. It took us many years to streamline the workload and perfect the timing. Now we must triple the paperwork, most of which is filled out by me for the first time. Coordinating this collaborative project equaled at least six of our missions.

During one of our first phone calls with NASA to plan the mission, a NASA manager, rightfully pointed out that although they were eager to support our work, the shuttle came first. If the launch schedule changed, we would change. Most ocean research projects don’t happen this way because the students and scientists are often on tight schedules and have to plan months in advance.

Fig. (The United Space Alliance diver heads under the vessel to attach the sonar equipment that will be used to map the seafloor.)

Still, all work and doubt are worth the risk. I spend many hours each year whining about the lack of attention the oceans get from the public. Yet here are NASA engineers whose livelihoods lie in the stars, going out of their way to explore the oceans. Some advice to me-- perhaps a little less whining, and a little more “dining” will produce many more fruitful ocean partnerships and friends.


Ph. 843-953-7263
Project Oceanica
Lowcountry Hall of Science and Math
College of Charleston
Charleston, SC 29424
Fax 843-953-7850