Around the Pier: Navy, Scripps Christen R/V Sally Ride


The U.S. Navy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, christened the first vessel in the national research fleet named for a female scientist on Aug. 9 as a crowd of more than 150 dignitaries formally welcomed R/V Sally Ride dockside at the Anacortes, Wash., shipyard where it is being constructed.

Tam O’Shaughnessy, companion of the late Sally Ride, who made history in 1983 when she became the first American female astronaut to travel to space, made the ship’s launch into the ocean official with a crack of a sparkling wine bottle on its hull and vote of confidence that the vessel will go on to do great things in the spirit of its namesake.

“Scripps will be answering some of the most compelling problems of our time,” said O’Shaughnessy, with R/V Sally Ride, which she noted is a “very smart ship” with advanced environmentally friendly features that means it is “not contributing to the kinds of problems Scripps is trying to solve.”

Ride was selected for NASA's astronaut corps in 1978. She flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. In 1989, she joined the faculty of UC San Diego as a professor of physics and was director of the university's California Space Institute. She died in July 2012 at the age of 61 of pancreatic cancer.

O’Shaughnessy’s proclamation that the naming of the ship for Ride was “a big damn deal” for women and especially for female scientists now and in the years to come was echoed by several other speakers at the christening events. Scripps Director Margaret Leinen recalled the inspirational value not just of Ride’s mission in space, but of how she pursued her career and her life. Leinen noted how the academic landscape of the 1970s when she was pursuing her doctorate was very much male-dominated. She recounted that she had never even met a female Ph.D. until her senior year of college.

As a young faculty member, she and her female students would get together to pop champagne to celebrate their achievements, labeling the corks to memorialize the occasion. They popped a cork on June 18, 1983, when Ride blasted off into space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. On the cork, they wrote “Sally Ride represents us all,” recounted Leinen, her voice cracking.

“Every female scientist I know knows where they were when Sally Ride went into space. She broke the ultimate glass ceiling,” Leinen said.

The christening and related gala events drew the leaders of NOAA, NASA, and the offices of the U.S. Navy that oversee research and technology. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was in the agency’s astronaut corps when Sally Ride flew aboard the Space Shuttle. He said that Ride’s legacy went beyond her accomplishments as an astronaut to include her personal mission to advance science education, especially for girls, as the founder of the organization Sally Ride Science, which develops science-related classroom materials and other educational products.

Referring to girls in his grandchildren’s generation, Bolden said that because of Sally Ride, “they know that a career in science and engineering is just as much a possibility for them as for their male classmates.”

The Office of Naval Research announced that Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, had been chosen as the operator of what was then known only as Auxiliary General Purpose Oceanographic Research Vessel 28 (AGOR-28) on May 17, 2010. In October 2011, Congress authorized $89 million in the Department of Defense budget for the construction of AGOR-28.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that he had selected Sally Ride as the namesake of the new vessel on April 12, 2013, making the ship the first ever named for a woman in the history of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, the consortium of U.S. academic centers that coordinates ship-based field research. In September 2012, Mabus had named R/V Sally Ride’s sister ship after Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. R/V Neil Armstrong, which is also under construction at the Dakota Creek Industries shipyard in Anacortes, will be operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Several U.S. Navy representatives, including Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, and Rear Adm. Jonathan White, Oceanographer of the Navy, attended the christening.

Klunder, a self-described “ship geek,” said the vessel “truly means we get the cutting-edge research capability that we need for our Navy, for our nation, to protect our oceans and the world’s oceans.”

“We have unbelievably high expectations for this vessel,” he added.

Substantial construction and outfitting of the 238-foot R/V Sally Ride with research instrumentation remains to be done. Scripps anticipates taking delivery of the vessel in mid-2015 and then spending at least six months field-testing it. With the exterior of the ship having taken on the appearance of the other four vessels in the Scripps research fleet, Scripps Associate Director Bruce Appelgate told christening participants that the ship was moving “from a nameless hulk to a ship with a name and a spirit.”  

Scripps Senior Captain Tom Desjardins is scheduled to be the first captain of the vessel. The last time Scripps received a new vessel was in 1995, when R/V Roger Revelle joined its fleet. Desjardins said R/V Sally Ride will be substantially more computerized than older vessels and anticipates a month or more training before taking over.

“I’m anxious to take it out there and see what we get,” said Desjardins. “Now instead of attacking a problem with a bag of tools, wrenches, and screwdrivers, I think everyone’s going to be looking at computers.”

The vessel will have several features that are new to oceanographic vessels including engineering that will make R/V Sally Ride operate much more quietly than older vessels and advanced dynamic positioning systems.

“If scientists want something from one specific spot on the ocean floor, we can position the ship so they can get what they need,” Desjardins said. “Instead of an estimation of where the ship might be, we can tell them down to six feet where the ship is and can stay within six feet of where we tell it to be for days at a time.”

Frank Herr, head of the Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department at the Office of Naval Research, credited the ship operations staff at Scripps’s Nimitz Marine Facility in the Point Loma neighborhood of San Diego with having the support structure that will give R/V Sally Ride the “global reach” it needs to have.
“We expect this ship to be operating 300 days a year,” said Herr.  “There are many institutions in the country that could probably have operated the vessel well, but Scripps has shown how good it is at the worldwide logistics that these ships demand.”  

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was also a fellow astronaut corps member with Sally Ride and remembered Ride’s sense of fun. Since people couldn’t tell the female astronaut candidates apart at a function just after they became astronaut candidates, Sullivan and Ride switched name tags and assumed each other’s identity without being questioned.

Sullivan recalled her friend’s “tremendous intelligence, capacity for rapid learning, penchant for action, and rock-solid composure in unfamiliar, high-pressure circumstances.”

“She sought to inspire and equip new generations of explorers, especially young girls. Among today’s ranks of scientists, engineers, doctors, naval officers and, yes, astronauts, you’ll find many who say they are there because of Sally,” Sullivan said.

In closing just before O’Shaughnessy and a select party walked to the ship, bottle in hand, Sullivan expressed a wish and prayer for the scientists and students who would be sailing on R/V Sally Ride: “Honor her spirit by keeping her exuberant spirit of wonder and learning alive on this ship. Grant all who sail upon her great adventures, grand discoveries, and safe passage home.”

– Robert Monroe

Related Image Gallery: Christening of R/V Sally Ride

Related Video: Tam O'Shaughnessy Christens R/V Sally Ride

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