The 50th anniversary of the launch of the Royal Research Ship Discovery was marked on 2 July 2012. This is her last year of service, a half-century of science that has included surveying the ocean floor, measuring ocean currents, monitoring climate change, and discovering new species around the globe.
When RRS Discovery was launched in 1962 there was no satellite navigation (this didn’t begin until 1969); Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister; there was no GPS (this was fitted in 1986); and John F Kennedy was President.
But it is the people who worked on board Discovery who pushed the boundaries of ocean knowledge. Researchers, officers and crew associated with her over the years met at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton to recall their time at sea and celebrate the scientific and technological achievements made aboard Discovery. There was an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia, including a preview of the new Discovery.
During the celebrations the ship mobilised for her next expedition. Discovery set out for the deep ocean southwest of Lands End to photograph and map the seafloor with the robot submarine Autosub. Using this latest technology, Discovery will enable researchers to prepare the ocean version of a Google street map of the habitat and residents of the Porcupine Abyssal Plain, two and a half miles (4000 metres) deep.
In addition to increasing a body of scientific knowledge, the ship has also grown – by 10 metres. During a refit in 1990-1992 the hull’s middle section was extended, increasing her length to 90.2 metres.
Discovery follows in a line of distinguished ships dating back to 1602 when the East India Company commissioned the first recorded Discovery to explore the waters now known as the Hudson Strait in the long search for the elusive North-West Passage. In the 20th century a new Discovery was specially commissioned for the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04. The Discovery Expedition included Antarctic heroes Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
Owned by the Natural Environment Research Council and operated by the National Oceanography Centre, Discovery will be withdrawn from use at the end of the year. The building of a replacement vessel is already under way.