Naval Submarine Base New London Groton, Connecticut
The United States Submarine Service has a long and proud tradition of developing and using leading edge technologies. For over 50 years, the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (NSMRL) has been a major contributor to integrating these technologies into submarine and diving operations and to improving crew health and performance.
NSMRL began as a research section of the Naval Hospital Command at the New London Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut. By 1946, NSMRL had evolved into a formal command under the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). NSMRL became responsible for selecting all officers and en1isted personnel for training at the Naval Submarine School, conducting specialized training in submarine medicine for hospital corpsmen and medical officers, and researching medical aspects of submarines and diving. This mission continues to be applicable today. Despite changes in name, personnel, and specific research topics, there has been considerable continuity in the research conducted at NSMRL over its history.
During and immediately following World War ll, the Submarine Service was growing, and, as a result, there were many more applicants than could be accepted. NSMRL was tasked by fleet operations to refine the personnel selection procedures. From the lessons learned in submarine operations during the war, it was recognized that psychological factors and pitch discrimination were important characteristics to evaluate when determining an individual’s ability to adapt and perform in the enclosed undersea environment of the submarine. Using this information, NSMRL developed the Submarine Psychological Testing Program, which is still employed today.
As the submarine continues to be improved and adapted to its changing role in naval operations, NSMRL continues to address important human issues to achieve optimum levels of operator and medical performance. The tradition of Rig for Red in submarine lighting illustrates the research process. As early as 1941, NSMRL demonstrated that red light was best for preserving night vision and recommended its use to maintain dark adaptation for periscope operators. As time and technology progressed, both the advent of the nuclear submarine, which eliminated the need to bring submarines to the surface to snorkel, and the increased use of computerized display monitors reduced dependence on the periscope. Thus, preserving night vision to topside watchstanders and periscope operators was less of an issue. With these changes, NSMRL demonstrated that, although effective in maintaining dark adaptation, the traditional red light obscured colors on navigational charts and other displays. To address this problem, NSMRL verified that low level white light, in which people see colors accurately, was sufficient to preserve night vision.
Long-standing programs of research in personnel selection, night vision, and color vision are enhanced by the significant contributions of NSMRL has made in auditory and acoustic research, human factors engineering, biomedical science, and dentistry. NSMRL researchers are not always recognized on the submarine piers, but their footprint is readily apparent. Enlisted men and officers in the submarine service may remember completing a psychological inventory as well as hearing and color vision tests during their time at the Submarine School in Groton. NSMRL’s research also includes the diving community (e.g., studies of nitrogen narcosis, development of saturation diving and decompression tables, and evaluation of the intelligibility of speech in a helium environment). In fact, NSMRL’s contributions can be seen across the Navy (e.g. techniques for hearing conservation in noisy environments, the Farnsworth lantern, test of color vision, red and green signal lights, International Orange/Air-Sea Rescue Red). Benefits of NSMRL’s research extend to other closed environments, such as those used by NASA and Antarctic expeditions. NSMRL continues to serve the fleet by taking the lead in undersea human factors, sensory sciences, and operational medicine.
NSMRL is keeping pace with the information revolution impacting both existing and new submarine platforms. Traditional research questions will continue to demand NSMRL’s attention (e.g., submarine health and environmental conditions), but new research questions need to be addressed in the face of new technology. Given simultaneous trends of submarine manning reductions and technology increases, there are human factors and cognitive issues that arise as fewer people are asked to handle more information. New information technology also presents benefits in that it can provide advantages in organizing and presenting large amounts of information in an intuitive manner. To capitalize on these advantages, NSMRL developed SEAREX, a computer-based system that presents an easy-to-follow series of steps to maximize safety and success during escape and rescue from a disabled submarine. Of course, NSMRL is not along in recognizing and addressing the impact of new technology on the submarine platform. On 11-13 May 1999, the Naval Submarine League will sponsor a classified Submarine Technology Symposium, Maritime Dominance Beyond 2015 Through Innovative Sub111lJliM Technology. Eager representatives of NSMRL will be in attendance.
NSMRL is a BUMED command under Naval Health Research Center in San Diego. Captain Mark T. Wooster, Medical Service Corps, USN, is NSMRL’s current Commanding Officer. The laboratory is comprised of a diverse group of physicians, physiologists, psychologists, audiologists, and electrical, biomedical, and nuclear engineers. Information on current research at the laboratory and lists of technical reports and peer-reviewed papers published at NSMRL can be found on the command’s website (http://www.nhrc.navy.mil/nsmrl/). We encourage participation and input by members of the submarine service and other interested parties on issues important to improving submarine and diving operations. The research world is fluid and personnel and topics change, but the primary focus of NSMRL will always be to assist submariners and divers and to be responsive to their needs.
The Submarine Force is essential to the nation’s present and future security. NSMRL is in the unique position of being able to both anticipate and address the questions and concerns of the Submarine Force.