Return to story

Submerse yourselves in Science Museum

January 13, 2013 12:10 am


Oh the stories that this storied submersible--now on dry land at the Science Museum in Richmond--could tell.

THERE is always so much going on at the Science Museum of Virginia.

And if you get tired of something, just walk to another gallery and find another exhibit to explore.

A friend steered us to an outstanding display of guitars and performances by Richmond folk singer Susan Greenbaum. It was outstanding--but also leaving town the next day.

I went with friends CG and Bob and Lou Gramann. Bob is a Fredericksburg-based composer, performer--and guitar maker.

There is a national museum of the guitar in the works, and the exhibit is slated to show up in a number of other venues across the country before finally settling into a new permanent home at a city not yet chosen. Keep an eye on this.

From guitars, we moved to a featured exhibit of human anatomy and physiology, then to James River marine life followed by Rat Basketball.

You know Rat Basketball. That's where a couple of cool rats--real rats--make unfailingly killer shots at hoops. Hard to capture that fun in a few words, but the crowded audience ate it up.

Did I mention that the rats go through the hoops holding their miniature basketballs?

Later, I was looking at a display of extreme animal capabilities. Did you know a cheetah can hit 68 miles per hour in three seconds flat, from a standing start? That is serious acceleration!

Anyway, I'm living proof that attention deficit disorder is always with you. I went on through the museum like that, hopscotching from one unrelated thing to another, until

I saw a kids exhibit on oceanside biology on a lower floor. I love anything for kids--it cuts right to the chase.

But when I found my way down a staircase to the exhibit, I saw something else of an oceanic nature--outside, some distance behind the museum.

It was "Aluminaut," an 80-ton, 55-foot-long forged aluminum deep sea submersible built by General Dynamics Electric Boat Division that once roamed the oceanic depths. It's the real thing. Built in the mid-1960s, it was used extensively for seven years before being retired in 1971.

Aluminaut, with a crew of three, made 251 dives during its active life, for a wide variety of government and other clients including the U.S. military.

During that era of undersea exploration, only two submersibles--Aluminaut and Alvin--were capable of operating at the extreme depths needed for a number of missions.

Two of Aluminaut's most notorious missions were rescuing the smaller Alvin after it sunk in 1969, and assisting Alvin in the search and retrieval of a loose U.S. Air Force hydrogen bomb in 1966.

The errant H-bomb was one of four aboard an Air Force B-52 bomber when it collided with a KC-135 tanker near Palomares, Spain. Three of the bombs were located on land, but the fourth was seen parachuting into the sea.

A huge search, highly publicized, was launched. At that time only Alvin and Aluminaut were capable of operating in the oceanic depths where the bomb was believed to be. It was described as far more challenging than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Aluminaut discovered wreckage from the downed bomber, helping Alvin to eventually find the bomb itself.

More than three years later, in mile-deep water off the coast of Massachusetts, Alvin was lost when a cable snapped as it was being lowered into the water. Fortunately, the three-man crew was able to scramble to safety before the craft flooded and sank.

At that time there was only a single craft capable of attempting to rescue the valuable submersible from such deep waters: Aluminaut.

It was a major effort. A first dive failed when a piece of essential special equipment failed. It was redesigned and, once more, Aluminaut's crew descended to the ocean floor. This second attempt was successful and Alvin was able to be craned to the surface and secured.

Alvin is still being operated by the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institute,

Aluminaut, retired in 1971, was given to the Science Museum by Reynolds Metals, its owner, in 1995.

The large, orange undersea craft looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. If you wish to explore and examine it, you may have to ask someone how to find it.

It is well worth it.

Armchair Adventures/Plus is now up and running. Check it out: armchairadventuresplus.blogspot .com.

Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former reporter with The Free Lance-Star, is a freelance writer. Email him at

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.