NOAA Ship Heck was built in 1966 by the Jakobson Shipyard in Oyster Bay, New York for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS). Commissioned in March 29, 1967, the ship was originally designed for wire-drag operations to investigate submerged hazards to navigation in tandem with her sister ship, NOAA Ship Rude. The twin-diesel, 90-ft. ship was named after Captain Nicholas Heck, who pioneered the wire-drag method which was used for discovering undersea obstructions in the early 20th century. The wire-drag method was the primary technique used to search large areas for obstructions, lost ships and aircraft until the use of the sidescan sonar became commonplace in the late 1980s.
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 coordinated by of the Hydrographic Surveys Branch of USC&GS's Research and Development Laboratory. The project integrated a Differential Global Positioning System—an enhanced version of GPS with improved location accuracy—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 that verified the exact nature of the submerged obstructions.
The ship was named after Captain Heck who was known for developing radio acoustic ranging—the first navigation system to eliminate the need for visual determination of position. As Chief of the USC&GS 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 ship, Midnight Sun, from sinking. The crews received the Department of Commerce Silver Medal for their rescue efforts.