As hundreds of midshipmen looked on, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed the Merchant Marine Academy's new training vessel Friday as a "sign of progress."
The 176-foot MV Liberty Star -- once used by NASA as part of the space shuttle program -- will serve as a floating classroom for the Kings Point academy.
The 69-year-old school, sorely in need of repairs to buildings and barracks, lost its training vessel, the Kings Pointer, to Texas A&M University in December.
But LaHood promised to push for campus improvements, telling students, parents and staff that the administration is committed to making the academy "a jewel."
Chris Gasiorek, the academy's training director, said the Liberty Star has been fitted with a computer-controlled dynamic positioning system that uses thrusters to maintain stability in deep ocean. The systems are commonly used on drilling and cruise ships.
Founded in 1943 after several maritime disasters, the Kings Point school is one of five U.S. service academies. Its mission is to provide trained deck or engineering officers to serve on private ships or military vessels. Graduates of the four-year program leave Kings Point with Coast Guard licenses and Naval Reserve appointments.
Officials had said the Kings Pointer was moved to Texas because that school lacked proper training ships, while Kings Point students have the option to train on merchant ships at sea.
Parents and alumni, though, were concerned that the Long Island midshipmen would lose valuable training time when commercial ships were unavailable.
The ship, built in 1980, was used by NASA to retrieve rocket boosters that fell to the ocean after space shuttle launches.
It will be further retrofitted at an undetermined location to add safety equipment, berths and tables for use as a classroom, and could return to Kings Point in January.
It will be renamed Kings Pointer upon its return, officials said.
Jim Tobin, president of the academy's alumni association and foundation, said the vessel is "another way to get hands-on training."
"We want our engineers to not only understand concepts and theories, but to be able to rip apart a pump and put it back together," he said.
Tara Mulligan, 22, of West Point, stood in her white midshipman's uniform, marveling at the new ship and its many features.
"I can't wait to take it out there," she said.