What Does the Office of Naval Research Do?

By Danielle DeSimone

How do Navy sailors, divers, SEALs, Marines and more stay up-to-date on the latest technologies that make the U.S. Navy one of the greatest navies in the world? How does the U.S. military conduct research deep underwater? How does the Navy utilize robots that mimic the appearance and movements of sharks to gather intel around the world?

The answer is simple: the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

But what does the Office of Naval Research do, and how does it do it? Here are six facts about the organization.

1. What Does the Office of Naval Research Do?

According to the ONR itself, the office is “an executive branch agency … that provides technical advice to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy.”

The Navy’s latest submarine steam suits, developed by the Office of Naval Research, are now in use as of 2021. | Photo credit Office of Naval Research

But what exactly is the mission of the Office of Naval Research? As an organization within the U.S. Navy, the ONR’s purpose is to conduct science and technology research, maintaining the United States’ naval power and national security.

2. The Office of Naval Research Was Established Following World War II.

The Naval Research Laboratory, the predecessor to the Office of Naval Research, opened in 1923 and was the Navy’s first modern research institution. Twenty years later, as the world raced to develop new technologies during World War II, naval technology continued to develop and the field of science became even more important to national security.

As a result, the Office of Naval Research was officially established on August 1, 1946 by President Harry S. Truman.

3. The ONR Has Contributed to Numerous Scientific Developments and Discoveries.

The Stratolab – a sealed, pressurized gondola that set a world record of 76,000 feet (higher than any humans had ever gone before without the assistance of a rocket) – is pictured beside its pilots in their pressure suits as they talk with Navy Capt. Norman Lee Barr, the flight surgeon for the project. | Photo credit Office of Naval Research/Tomas J. Abercrombie

From developing methods used to produce uranium 235 (which was later used to create the atomic bomb) and contributing to the earliest computers, to creating explosion-resistant coating used on ships and conducting the first experiments with balloons sent into high altitudes and – eventually – space, the ONR has been at the forefront of many significant scientific breakthroughs.

4. Several Nobel Laureates Have Been Sponsored By the ONR.

As of 2021, the Office of Naval Research has sponsored 63 Nobel laureates in their research and work in subjects such as chemistry, physics, medicine and economics.

5. The First U.S. Reconnaissance Satellite Was Launched by the Office of Naval Research

The Office of Naval Research designed and launched the U.S. military’s first-ever intelligence-gathering satellite. | Photo credit U.S. Navy

In June 1960, the Navy – thanks to the work of the Office of Naval Research – launched the U.S. military’s first-ever intel-gathering satellite into space. This satellite was crucial for military operations during the Cold War.

6. The Office of Naval Research is Especially Well Known for Its Underwater Research Programs

As part of the U.S. Navy, the Office of Naval Research is tasked with running extensive research programs on underwater operations. This includes things such as developing technology for amphibious crafts like submarines, or medical research that helps ensure Navy divers have optimized dive missions and avoid decompression illnesses while SCUBA diving.

Photo credit DVIDS/Alan Antczak

A Navy diver helps guide the University of North Carolina’s vehicle “SeaWolfV” into a pool during the 15th annual RoboSub Competition in 2012. The competition provides a platform for students from around the world to test their robotics skills by building and competing an autonomous underwater vehicle.

The office even offers the Navy Undersea Research Program (NURP) in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, offering civilian graduate students the opportunity to conduct underwater weapon and vehicle research in the hopes of preparing the next generation of Navy researchers for a career in naval technology and innovation.

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