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USNS <I>Vanguard</I> (T-AGM 19) on 1 November 1967 at Bermuda in her original configuration.

USNS Vanguard (T-AGM 19) on 1 November 1967 at Bermuda in her original configuration.
Click on this photograph for links to larger images of this class.

Class: VANGUARD (T-AGM 19)
Design: MC T2-SE-A2 (mod), no Navy project #
Displacement (tons): 8,455 light, 24,710 full
Dimensions (feet): 595' oa, 575' wl/pp x 75' x 27.1'
Armament: none
Accommodations: 19-20 officers, 71 unlicensed, 108-120 scientists/technicians
Speed (kts.): 16
Propulsion (HP): 10,000
Machinery: Turbo-electric, 2 boilers, 1 screw

19VANGUARD28 Sep 1964Marinship26 Aug 194323 Nov 194328 Feb 1966
20REDSTONE19 Oct 1964Marinship26 Nov 194328 Feb 194430 Jun 1966
21MERCURY28 Oct 1964Marinship30 Jul 194314 Oct 194316 Sep 1965

AGMNameTOOS/CustStrikeDisposalFateMA Sale/Depart
19VANGUARDT30 Mar 199813 Dec 199929 Nov 2001MA/T23 Oct 2013/D
20REDSTONET6 Aug 19937 Dec 199317 Nov 1995Navy sale--
21MERCURYT196928 Apr 197029 Oct 1969MA23 Jun 1970

Class Notes:
These three ships were acquired and converted for NASA's Apollo program. A meeting between DOD and NASA representatives was held in June 1962 to discuss continuing and future instrumentation ship requirements. It was decided that, to be totally effective for NASA projects, floating platforms had to have extensive amounts of "project peculiar" equipment on board identical to that of the ground network and they would have to be fully integrated into that network and operated by the same contractors. On 21 January 1963 NASA took exception to the DOD position that existing instrumentation ships (see for example T-AGM 12) then being used for the Atlantic Missile Range could support the Apollo program, stating that NASA needed ships equipped with improved traffic communications lines and larger dish antennas that could track and communicate with spacecraft at lunar distances out of radar range. After much study it was agreed to augment the instrumentation fleet with the addition of three converted T2 tankers (the T-AGM 19 class) and the upgrading of two existing Victory ships (the T-AGM 6 class). The FY 1964 and FY 1965 budgets included funding for the five ships. The General Dynamics Quincy Shipbuilding Division, previously the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. yard at Quincy, Mass., was selected as the prime contractor to modify the three tankers.

The "19-Class" ships, officially known as "Apollo Instrumentation Ships," were World War II T2 tankers in which a an approximately 300' midbody comprising all of the ship except the 75'1.5" bow section and 120'1.5" stern section (the latter with the propulsion equipment) was cut out and replaced with a new 379.75' midbody 72 feet longer than the old one and containing some 325 to 400 tons of instrumentation and accommodations for nearly 200 men including 108 scientists (88 ship's company and 122 instrumentation personnel in AGM 20). Their telemetry systems were able to handle hundreds of channels of information, including data on both the performance of the various spacecraft and the health and welfare of the astronauts. The 30-foot dish antennas that communicated with the NASA network and the radar antennas on deck were stabilized by computers compensating for motions of the ship. The navigation systems could track stars by day and night and could read maps of the ocean floor. Each ship carried a crew of 17 officers, 71 crew members, and 122 technical personnel including the NASA Flight Controllers. The old mid-body of VANGUARD was sold and replaced the midbody of the T2-SE-A1 WASHINGTON TRADER.

On 8 April 1965 SECNAV changed the names of the tankers from MISSION SAN FERNANDO, MISSION DE PALA, and MISSION SAN JUAN to MUSCLE SHOALS, JOHNSTOWN, and FLAGSTAFF, cities with no connection to the space program, but after NASA engineer Earl Hilburn suggested using names from the agency's first space projects the Navy cancelled these names on 1 September 1965 and replaced them with VANGUARD, REDSTONE, and MERCURY. VANGUARD was floated out of dock on 9 September 1965 and completed builder's trials in January 1966. She was accepted by MSTS on 28 February 1966 and was expected to enter service in June 1966 following instrumentation testing at Quincy. She was accepted at the Eastern Test Range on 11 October 1966 and was then transferred to the Western Test Range on 17 March 1967, although she ended up serving in the Atlantic. REDSTONE was launched on 18 November 1964 after lengthening and was accepted by MSTS on 30 June 1966. She was accepted at the Western Test Range on 20 Sepember 1967. MERCURY was launched 19 Nov 1964 after lengthening and was accepted at the Western Test Range on 18 January 1967. After relaying communications between Gemini astronauts and Cape Kennedy she returned to Quincy in 1967 to have upgraded satellite terminals installed for the Apollo program.

The ships had different roles in the Apollo program. VANGUARD was concerned primarily with the insertion of the space vehicle into earth orbit and was to be stationed in the North Atlantic. REDSTONE and MERCURY were to be stationed in the Indian Ocean near South Africa and in the Pacific between the Canberra and Hawaii tracking stations to monitor the injection of the vehicle into the lunar trajectory for its flight to the moon. The first of these ships to participate in the Apollo program was VANGUARD, which supported Apollo 4 (launched on 9 November 1967) as a tracking and communication platform in the mid-Atlantic. REDSTONE and WATERTOWN made their initial appearance in January 1968 in support of Apollo 5, the former in the Atlantic and the latter in the Pacific. They played the same roles in support of Apollo 6 in April 1968. For the first manned flight, Apollo 7, VANGUARD was positioned near the Bahamas to support orbital insertion, REDSTONE was stationed in the central Pacific, MERCURY was positioned east of Taiwan, and HUNTSVILLE was 1,200 miles west of Los Angeles to support reentry. The same four ships supported Apollo 8, Apollo 9, and Apollo 11, with VANGUARD in the Atlantic and the other three in the Pacific.

After Apollo 11 NASA kept VANGUARD on station in the Atlantic for the remaining Apollo flights as a secondary tracking station but released the others, stating that the success of the previous flights made it possible to reduce the number of tracking areas. MERCURY was declared by the Air Force on 15 August 1969 to be in excess to its requirements, and as no other requirement for the ship then existed she was consigned to the NDRF with the provision that she be held for future DOD utilization. The Air Force planned to release her by 15 October 1969 for placement in the NDRF a month later. Because of fiscal constraints MARAD specified that the Navy was to retain title to the ship. In response the Navy on 20 October 1969 informed MARAD that the Navy and Air Force no longer had any need for the ship and that she would be transferred for disposition in place of retention. MERCURY was sold in 1970 and converted to a bulk carrier. REDSTONE returned to the Eastern Test Range to participate in various missile projects, and in April 1983 she tracked the two solid fuel rocket boosters released in the maiden flight of the CHALLENGER space shuttle. VANGUARD continued to support NASA with the Skylab program and the Apollo-Soyuz Test project. In 1980 she replaced COMPASS ISLAND (AG 153) as a navigational test ship and as VANGUARD (AG 194) helped test the POSEIDON and TRIDENT I navigation subsystems and develop the TRIDENT II navigation subsystem.

Ship Notes:
19VANGUARD1274(ex-T-AO 122) (ex USNS MUSCLE SHOALS 1 Sep 1965, ex MISSION SAN FERNANDO 8 Apr 1965, compl. 29 Feb 1944). To MSTS from JRRF 28 Sep 1964 for conversion. To AG 194 on 30 Sep 1980 to replace COMPASS ISLAND (AG 153). Replaced as navigation test support ship by WATERS (T-AGS 45). To MA custody 12 Jun 1998. Departed 23 Oct 2013 under sales contract.
20REDSTONE1280(ex-AO 114) (ex USNS JOHNSTOWN 1 Sep 1965, ex MISSION DE PALA 8 Apr 1965, compl. 22 Apr 1944). To MSTS from Beaumont reserve fleet 19 Oct 1964 for conversion. To MA custody in JRRF 6 Aug 1993. To buyer from JRRF 30 Jan 1996 following Navy sale.
21MERCURY1272(ex-T-AO 126) (ex USNS FLAGSTAFF 1 Sep 1965, ex MISSION SAN JUAN 8 Apr 1965, compl. 31 Jan 1944). To MSTS from Beaumont reserve fleet 28 Oct 1964 for conversion. Custody and title to MA 29 Oct 1969. Sold under MA exchange program to Matson for their HAWAIIAN BUILDER (a 1945 C3 freighter), title delivered 23 Jun 1970 and ship delivered 24 Jun 1970. Converted by Matson to bulker KOPAA 31 Mar 1971. Sold Oct 1984 to BU in Taiwan.

Page Notes:
Compiled: 18 Oct 2021
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2021
Sources: "NASA's Moonship Fleet" by Eric Pearson in PowerShips (the journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America) No. 314 (Summer 2020) pp. 38-45.