USS Observation Island E-AG 154 (Missile Range Instrumentation Ship)
Originally a Mariner class fast cargo ship, built by New York Shipbuilding and launched in 1953, Observation Island was purchased by the Navy in 1956, during the early days of developing a submarine launched ballistic missile.
Conversion to the Navy’s purpose was completed in 1958, and the ship was present to observe the first submerged launch of a Polaris Missile in 1960. Prior to that evolution Observation Island successfully launched six Polaris missiles, testing and evaluating the missile as well as the launce system. Later the ship participated in the first at sea launches of the Polaris A-2 and A-3 missiles. On the last Saturday of his life, November 16th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was aboard the ship to observe the submerged launch of a Polaris missile.
As each of the expanding number of Polaris equipped submarines went to sea, each of their crews would operate the system and launch a test missile at sea. Observation Island, based at Port Canaveral, monitored these tests. As the second generation naval ballistic missile, Poseidon, was under development, Observation Island repeated its mission in the Polaris program, testing and evaluating both the missile and its launch system.
By 1972, the data acquired by Observation Island was available via other sources and the cost of converting the ship to support the next generation fleet ballistic missile, TRIDENT, was deemed excessive. The ship was decommissioned and placed in reserve.
In 1977 the vessel was reactivated, this time for transfer to the Military Sealift Command, and re-designated as a Missile Range Instrumentation Ship. The ship is operated by Military Sealift Command for the US Air Force Technical Applications Center. The ship carries phased array radar to acquire data on missile flight tests.
Observation Island operates around the world, obtaining valuable data concerning the performance of missiles launched by American vessels, those of allies, and those of nations not considered friends to the United States. The data acquired allows considering the missiles performance as part of developing defenses against them.
In 2008, Observation Island recorded and delivered data on missile performance as part of a test in which the United States determined the feasibility of using an anti-missile weapon to destroy a satellite, by tracking the satellite in flight before and after launch.
Although still operational in 2012, Observation Island has been scheduled to be replaced after the successful shakedown of a replacement vessel. That ship was delivered to the Navy in January, 2012.
Asbestos Exposure on USS Observation Island
At the time of its construction, despite growing evidence of the hazards of asbestos exposure, asbestos containing materials were used in a large number of items built into Observation Island. Materials containing asbestos were used in the ship’s boilers, in gaskets and seals, valve bodies, electrical insulation, fireproofing of decks and bulkheads, deck tiles, overhead tiles, and in the insulating cloth used to lag pipes. Other items which may have contained asbestos included electrical distribution panels and switchboards, ventilation dampers and numerous items in the FBM launching system.
Observation Island operated in three separate careers, as a merchant vessel prior to its conversion; as an active participant in the launching and development of the submarine ballistic missile system: as an active evaluation program for weapons tests. In each of its careers it served with different organizations. During its lifetime it was converted to perform the requirements of its new mission, requiring extensive stays in shipyards where the extensive use of asbestos was routing until the late 1970’s.