It is the country's seventh and smallest uniformed service -- smaller than the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, and even smaller than the surgeon general's Public Health Service.
It has no enlisted men, and most of its officers are lieutenant commanders.
Its members are all college graduates, and one quarter have master's or doctoral degrees.
It carries out its missions aboard a fleet of 28 seagoing vessels and 15 aircraft, both fixed-wing and helicopter.
It was established in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson and is today the only U.S. uniformed service that President Fidel Castro permits to fly over Cuba.
It is the NOAA Commissioned Corps, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and on Monday its 399 officers got a new presidentially appointed director, Rear Adm. Francis D. (Bill) Moran.
"We like to think we're not only the smallest but the best," said Moran, 51, who began his career with the Army in Korea, learned to fly in the NOAA Corps and subsequently went through both the Navy and Air Force flight schools. "I've been through 'em all and, for the right kind of person, NOAA Corps is the place to be. It's your oyster."
NOAA Corps officers are the pilots and scientists who fly planes into hurricanes to get data for the National Weather Service, a sister agency. They command and operate research ships whose goal is to improve management of sport and commercial fishing grounds for the National Marine Fisheries Service, another NOAA agency. Working aboard planes and ships for NOAA's National Ocean Service, Corps officers continually update the nautical charts, geodetic surveys and aeronautical sectional charts needed by ships and planes for safe navigation.
Operating flying laboratories and oceanographic research vessels, they explore the atmosphere and the oceans for NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. And NOAA Corps officers operate Earth-orbiting satellites that monitor global weather, crop conditions and ocean phenomena for the agency's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.
Many of the Corps' officers are engineers, but growing numbers are working scientists such as marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, and foresters. Some act as administrators running marine sanctuaries. Two are lawyers.
"Some of these may be jobs that civilians could do as well but the big advantage of a commissioned service is the quick response time," Moran said Monday. "We can shift these people around as the need arises, go where the action is. Right now we've got [tropical storm] Danielle blowing up in the Caribbean. We're sending a crew to check it out."
It is because so many tropical storms and hurricanes threaten Cuba that the Corps' hurricane reconnaissance flights are allowed to fly over that country. The findings and forecasts, issued by the weather service's hurricane center in Miami, are immediately shared with Cuban officials.
"When the storm's heading toward Cuba, they're very cooperative with us," Moran said. "Once it's passed, they kind of take the attitude, 'It's every man for himself.' "
Moran, who has more than 6,000 hours of flight time and is the only Corps officer qualified to fly all NOAA aircraft, replaces Adm. Kelly E. Taggart, who retired as director after 31 years in the Corps.
Moran's NOAA career began in 1961 when, after earning a degree in mathematics and geology from the University of Southern Mississippi, he joined the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which survived various reorganizations to become the part of NOAA now called the Office of Charting and Geodetic Services.
The coastal survey was, in fact, the original nucleus of the NOAA Corps, established by Jefferson in 1807 as the Survey of the Coast. Because of a lack of proper nautical surveying equipment in the fledgling United States, no actual surveys were begun for some years.
That delay led to a kind of political wrangling entirely familiar to this day in Washington. The head of the survey happened to be traveling in Europe at his own expense, trying to get surveying equipment built, he claimed, when the war of 1812 broke out. The Navy, caught without good coastal charts, raised a ruckus. A Congress disgusted with the survey's slowness transferred the responsibility to the Navy, but it, too, made little or no progress.
By 1832 another administrative reorganization had passed the job back to the hands of a newly equipped civilian survey, which produced the first charts. In the 1870s the name was changed to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and in 1917 Congress converted the survey into a commissioned, uniformed service, complete with its own Navy-style hierarchy and its own vessels.
Reorganization struck again in 1965, when the name was changed to the ESSA Corps, after the Environmental Sciences Service Administration, and yet again in 1970, when it became the NOAA Corps.
You will know the smallest uniformed service by its standard white garb. It resembles a Navy uniform, but the shoulder boards bear the NOAA Corps' own service device: a globe containing a triangle, representing the service's surveying and mapping functions.