A Conversation With John Bouvier

Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier.

Town Councilman John Bouvier of Westhampton is a retired mechanical engineer with a long career that began with contract diving jobs all over the country. Working to help to design oceanic submersibles, he eventually found himself at NASA, where he helped design robotic equipment for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. In a lecture titled “From Deep Sea to Space,” sponsored by the Montauk Observatory and the Stony Brook Southampton School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences, he will talk about his work on Friday, March 1from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Chancellors Hall, 239 Montauk Highway, on the Stony Brook Southampton campus.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Huntington Hospital and grew up in Remsenburg until I was five. My father was director of Grumman International and so he also worked in American embassies in Europe with the Department of Defense selling aircraft to our allies. In those days, that was part and parcel for the two jobs at the same time. I grew up in Paris, then we moved to Spain and to Germany and to Greece. I came back to the United States for my last year of high school in Westhampton Beach.

Did you go to college in the U.S.?

Not at first. I grew up on the bays here, where we had a house that we rented out when we were away, and watching Jacques Cousteau. That had a profound effect on me. Anything under water and I was I totally fascinated with it. I decided before I went to college that I wanted to go to dive school, which I did. I went to the Harbor Branch Navy-run dive school in Fort Pierce, Florida.

You went right to work?

Yes, I did a lot of commercial salvage work traveling all over the country, living in motels and even in my car, until I started getting contract work with the Navy, who put me up in military barracks. I did end up going to the University of California when my work, my life experience, took me to California. I met Graham Hawkes, who is a designer of submersibles and an engineer. I went to work in Oakland for him and Sylvia Earle, who was known as “Her Deepness,” a really fascinating wonderful woman who was a marine biologist and was known to do a lot of diving. They were rebuilding one of the original all metal minesweepers, converting the ship to a research vessel. Graham and Sylvia started a company called Deep Ocean Engineering. I was a manager. We designed a submersible called Deep Rover and a remotely controlled vehicle called Rig Rover.

What led you to work with NASA?

It was quite natural. After we had done Deep Rover and Rig Rover, I had met someone who asked me come east and work on a project for NASA. The contract was to take lessons learned under water and apply them to on-orbit operations. They saw a parallel there, so we were awarded that contract and I started as general manager of Oceaneering Space Systems, an offshoot of Oceaneering International. Among my assignments was developing tools for the Hubble space telescope repair missions.

What brought you back home?

My father was ill. After he passed away in 1993, I went through his papers and found a whole bunch of letters that he had sent to me that never caught up with me or were returned because for so many years I had moved around so much, depending on where my work took me. I was so glad I could hear from my father later in life.

I have to ask: how are you related to the Bouviers?

Jackie was my cousin and my godmother. My father and she used to chase each other around the windmill in East Hampton when they were kids. I remember little snippets of things. I particularly remember the moment when Jack was assassinated. Jackie called us. We were in Paris at the time. I was sitting on the couch not understanding the emotions I was hearing. I really miss her a lot. She was a wonderful person.