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After that BP oil well blew out, scientists used a deep-diving submersible named Alvin to get a sense of the impact near the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this week, Alvin made one final trip to the seafloor in its current incarnation. The 46-year-old submarine's about to get a massive makeover. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, it's a time of nostalgia and anticipation for the people who've tended Alvin over the years.
RICHARD HARRIS: Alvin is, in essence, a six-foot diameter sphere with a battery pack, propellers, a few small windows for the three people who squeeze into it, and an armament of cameras, lights and grappling arms.
But to Bruce Strickrott, this red and white sub also has quite the personality.
Mr. BRUCE STRICKROTT (Expedition Leader, Chief Pilot): I believe it is, it's almost like it's a little prince that demands the attention of all these underlings. I just happen to be one of the more senior underlings right now.
HARRIS: On this late November day, expedition leader Strickrott is sitting in a chair up on the Alvin's mother ship, the Atlantis, as Alvin pokes around on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, probing damage caused by the Gulf oil spill.
Pilot Sean Kelley checks in occasionally, over a communications link that pulses sound waves through more than half a mile of ocean water.
Mr. SEAN KELLEY (Pilot): Now we're down around again and probably down to about an hour of power.
(Soundbite of beeps)
Mr. STRICKROTT: It's got an hour left and we're going to have to tell the bridge this, so...
HARRIS: After doing that, Strickrott leans back and a takes a few minutes to reflect on Alvin's long and versatile career.
Alvin, based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has made getting to the bottom of the ocean for scientific research remarkable and routine at the same time.
Mr. STRICKROTT: Today's dive: 4,655.
HARRIS: Do you feel like you have a relationship with this thing?
Mr. STRICKROTT: Boy, do I have a relationship with Alvin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STRICKROTT: Yes. Does it have personality? It absolutely does. I dove yesterday and from the moment I got in the water to the moment I got to the bottom, the submarine was testing me to see what I could do.
HARRIS: Among its exploits over the past 46 years, it found a wayward hydrogen bomb that fell into the Mediterranean in 1966. And more recently, Alvin poked around the carcass of the Titanic.
Mr. STRICKROTT: But if you ask scientists about what Alvin is famous for, I think the majority of them would tell you that the sub is famous for finding hydrothermal vents, and taking people down there and exposing them to things they just didn't expect to see.
HARRIS: Those vents of hot water from deep under the sea floor feed remarkable and thriving ecosystems far from the light of day. They're often found in places where molten rock is pushing up from deep inside the Earth - visual proof that the world's continents are on the move.
In more recent years, robotic vehicles operating on tethers have been able to perform most of the tasks that Alvin pioneered. That's led to some existential questions about the need for a manned sub.
Mr. STRICKROTT: Now, there are some people who argue that a submarine is nothing more than an elevator for egos, and I've heard that.
HARRIS: And while there's no denying it is a heady experience to travel to the bottom of the sea, he says there is still something intangible, and valuable, about having people actually there, peering out the windows.
Mr. KELLEY: Just finished coring(ph) and then we're then going to take (unintelligible), probably drive around some more.
HARRIS: Six years ago, a blue-ribbon science committee agreed that manned exploration of the seafloor was worthwhile enough to build a replacement for Alvin. But when the National Science Foundation watched the budget for that project balloon from $23 million to $50 million, they decided to scale back and take on the project in steps.
Step one will include a brand new three-inch-thick titanium hull, with more windows, more interior space and updated electronic controls.
Mr. STRICKROTT: Right now in the submarine, if you want to turn on a light, it looks like Apollo; you reach up and you turn on a switch and the light goes on.
HARRIS: Computer touch-screens will take over most of those functions. Staying the same, at least for the time being, will be the batteries and the propellers that allow the pilot to maneuver Alvin. And until those systems are updated, Alvin will be limited by its current, albeit impressive, depth limit of 2.8 miles beneath the waves.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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