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Written and Edited by Cliff Lethbridge




Launch Status: No Longer Used for Missile Launches


First Cape Canaveral Launch: August 27, 1959


Final Cape Canaveral Launch: March 24, 1970


Total Number of Cape Canaveral Launches: 28


Vehicles Launched: Polaris A1, Polaris A2, Polaris A3, Poseidon


Class During Cape Canaveral Launch Activity: Experimental Auxiliary, Miscellaneous


Length: 563 Feet


Beam: 76 Feet


Displacement: 16,000 Tons


Power Plant: Single Shaft


Maximum Power: 19,000 Horsepower


Maximum Speed: 22 Knots


Compartments: 410


Crew: 400


Officers: 40


Completed in February, 1954 the ship that would become the Observation Island was activated as a post World War II mariner class merchant ship. The ship's original name was Empire State Mariner. After less than one year of duty, the ship was placed in the National Defense Reserve Fleet in November, 1954. On September 10, 1956 the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy.


At the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the ship was converted into the first U.S. Navy ship to incorporate a fully integrated Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) system.


With the exception of the installation of a fin-type roll stabilization system, no major changes were made to the ship's hull or engineering system during the conversion. However, extensive modifications were made to the superstructure and holds to accommodate FBM weapons system components.


These included a complete prototype submarine-type missile firing control, navigation and launching system. An instrumentation system for providing optical and electronic data were also installed. The ship was initially outfitted with one missile launching tube, but a second was later added.


This allowed the Observation Island to act as an important platform for the first sea-based test launches of FBM weapons, including Polaris A1, Polaris A2, Polaris A3 and Poseidon. Although submarines ultimately made up the complete FBM fleet, Observation Island was the prototype for proposed ship-board FBM systems.


The Observation Island received her U.S. Navy commission on December 5, 1958. Since the ship was essentially a floating launch pad, it first fulfilled a vital role in conducting at-sea test launches to validate and refine FBM systems before they could be safely tested aboard submarines.


Once submarine-based FBM launches began, Observation Island still played an important role by providing at-sea support for these launches. Support was primarily provided in the form of optical and electronic data gathering as well as communications relay transfer between the submarines and range control operators on Cape Canaveral.


In addition, Observation Island acted as a site where dignitaries and members of the news media could view submarine-based FBM launches. Perhaps the most notable guest aboard the Observation Island was President John F. Kennedy, who viewed a Polaris A2 launch on November 16, 1963 - just six days prior to his death.


After completing its role in the Poseidon missile program, the Observation Island was decommissioned on September 25, 1972. It was again placed in the National Defense Reserve Fleet.


On August 18, 1977 the Observation Island was again acquired by the Navy, this time for conversion to a missile range instrumentation ship. The conversion was started in 1979 and completed in April, 1981. The primary conversion features were the fitting of a Cobra Judy phased array radar at the aft, and two radar spheres atop the superstructure.


The Observation Island remains in active service, supporting military and civilian range instrumentation needs in the Pacific Ocean. This includes the tracking of U.S. rockets and missiles launched over the Pacific range, as well as rockets and missiles launched by other nations.






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