Blue and Gold Stack

surveyship.blogspot.comSo, what does USNS mean? That’s United States Naval Ship, meaning a non-commissioned Navy ownedvessel operated by a civilian merchant marine crew rather than by naval personnel. These are generally auxiliary support ships: oilers (refueling tankers), transport ships and replenishment vessels supporting the fleet. Some are hospital ships or special mission ships, including those conducting ocean surveys. 

Why the stripes on the stack?  First of all, blue and gold are the official colors of the U.S. Navy. All shipping companies and cruise lines have their own proprietary stack insignia, helping in identification and as a form of advertising. Except for hospital ships, which are painted white, a USNS vessel generally looks pretty much like the regular navy except for having blue and gold stripes added around the smokestack. This is the insignia of the Navy's own sea transport company the Military Sealift Command (MSC), previously known as Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS)

MSC/MSTS's forerunner the Army Transport Service once operated troopships. This business was turned over to the Navy in the late 1940s. 

MSC operated ships have a "T" prefix before their classification symbol and hull number. Michelson's was T-AGS-23.

Those ships designated USS (United States Ship) are commissioned, meaning they are manned by traditional crews of navy officers and enlistees. 

Today, with defense budgets shrinking, more navy auxiliary ships are being operated more economically by MSC with civilian merchant marine crews.