Built in 1966 for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) by Jakobson Shipyard in Oyster Bay, New York, NOAA Ship Heck (S591) was originally designed for wire-drag operations to investigate submerged hazards to navigation in tandem with her sister ship, Rude. The twin-diesel, 90-ft. ship was named for Captain Nicholas Heck, who pioneered use of the wire drag method for discovering undersea obstructions in the early 20th century. This was the primary technique used to search large areas for obstructions, lost vessels and aircraft until the use of the sidescan sonar became commonplace in the late 1980s. Commissioned on March 29, 1967, Heck performed inshore hydrographic surveys along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Coasts in support of NOAA's nautical charting mission. Heck served as one of the primary test platforms for projects of the Hydrographic Surveys Branch of C&GS's Research and Development Laboratory, which integrated Differential Global Positioning System precise location data with side scan sonar imagery and a state-of-the-art multibeam bathymetric sonar into a compact and technically advanced onboard data acquisition/processing system. Heck was also fully equipped for diving operations to verify the exact nature of the submerged obstructions.
Captain Heck was also known for developing radio acoustic ranging, the first navigation system to eliminate the need for visual means to determine position. As Chief of the Division of Seismology and Terrestrial Magnetism, he was a leader in the development of geophysics in the first half of the Twentieth Century. He drew attention to the correlation between earthquake epicenters and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the 1930s. He was a recipient of the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union.
In 1978, Heck and Rude saved the research vessel Midnight Sun from sinking. The crews received the Department of Commerce Silver Medal for their rescue efforts.