Oceanographer Robert Ballard is one of America's best-known scientists. Twenty years ago, Ballard made his most famous discovery, the wreck of the legendary ocean liner Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. He now directs the Institute for Exploration at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. He also teaches oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, where he is probing both the depths of both the oceans and space.
Unlike many scientists who work in labs, Robert Ballard has done most of his research in exotic locales. He is said to have seen more of the ocean floor than anyone alive. Ballard says his fascination with the wonders of the sea began as a child, when he lived near San Diego, California, on America's Pacific coast. "I think it was growing up on the edge of the continent, in an area where the ocean was not hostile," the oceanographer recalls. "It was a friendly way to learn about the ocean: most of the year, you could swim along beautiful, sandy beaches and tidal pools. As a little boy, we spent our lifetime outdoors. My playpen was the ocean. I simply graduated from walking on the beaches, to swimming, then diving … "
Ballard realized he couldn't go as deep into the ocean as he wanted without new kinds of diving equipment, since ocean depths average more than 3,600 meters. After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara and serving in the U.S. Navy, his research quest eventually brought him to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. There he developed deep-diving research submarines or submersibles.
It was with the help of those robotic sea explorers that Ballard discovered the Titanic. His achievement drew worldwide attention and even became part of the blockbuster movie Titanic.
Although the film portrayed Ballard and his team of deep-sea explorers cheering when they finally found the great ocean liner, he says their actual reaction to the discovery was more complicated. "Obviously, you're happy you did it; there's a sense of joy," he says. "But at the same time, you're at a place where a lot of people died. It's not something you take lightly. You realize that you're proud that you found it, but you're also reflective that it's a place where a lot of people died."
Robert Ballard also has mixed feelings about the fate of the Titanic wreckage since the discovery. Nearly two years ago, he revisited the 3,600-meter-deep Titanic site to investigate and record any evidence of damage done by visiting submarines and salvage crews. His efforts led to the creation of an international treaty to protect the remains of the Titanic.
"These are underwater memorials, they're museums, they're not something that you go down and take stuff," the explorer says emphatically. "It's very much [like] the whole controversy about the Elgin marbles that were taken off the Acropolis -- or the mummies that were taken from the pyramids of Egypt -- and then taken to France, Germany or England. Back then, they thought, 'No one is going to come to Egypt.' Now you can fly in on a 747 [airplane], check into a hotel on the Nile [River] and rent a car [to get there]. So the technology now makes it possible to get to these places."
Although finding the Titanic is Ballard's best-known accomplishment, he is becoming widely known, too, for his efforts to promote science education. He joined thousands of students this year exploring the mysteries of the red planet via an Internet broadcast, which was transmitted from the headquarters of the National Geographic Society.
Ballard's foray into science education - launched in 1989 as the Jason Project - has taken millions of students via the Internet to the sites of underwater volcanoes, shipwrecks, rainforests, coral reefs, and this year, the planet Mars. The marine scientist says he started the project after observing how children reacted to his descriptions of the Titanic discovery expedition.
"I was surprised at how fascinated they were at our technology," Ballard says. "They all wanted to go on the expeditions. We saw we could [take them] with our 'telepresence' technology; we could beam it out to our ship. We started it 18 years ago, and here we are still doing it. It's become more sophisticated; when we first started, there wasn't the Internet. So we had to broadcast it to students by satellite."
A veteran of more than 65 underwater expeditions, Robert Ballard knows that few people can afford to physically share his experiences visiting the ocean floor. He believes telepresence technology will make ocean exploration more accessible to millions of people.
"People are going to start traveling electronically," says Ballard. "We're not going to be moving our bodies around, but we're going to move our eyes, hands and minds around. The deep sea has now been conquered. It's not difficult to get there, and we're now taking more people there."
At the age of 63, Ballard says he's now happy to let manmade robots do the underwater exploration, while he observes from a distance. "I don't miss it. My passion is to discover, and it's not necessarily how I did it [that's important]," the explorer says. "To physically go down there eats up too much time and it's too expensive. It's not critical that my kidneys are down there or my gall bladder is down there. But if my mind and eyes are down there, I don't care how I got there. If I'm 'inside' a robot, as long as I think I'm down there, that's all that counts."
And while his Jason Project helps introduce people to the excitement of exploration, Robert Ballard says it can also play a far-reaching role in science education in the United States. "We're in stiff competition," the scientist warns. "India and China don't have the power of warfare that we have. Yet they're beating us on the playing field. The future [will be determined] by how smart our kids are. If we want to maintain our standard of living, then you better educate your kids. If you don't, then don't complain when your standard of living goes down."
Robert Ballard believes nations can't achieve lasting strength and power through guns and bombs. They must do it by relying, instead, on their greatest resource - the brain power of their people.