Studying his audience at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Dr. Robert Ballard—the famed explorer who found the wreck of the RMS Titanic—asked if anyone in the room was with ONR in 1967, when he joined the command as a Navy ensign.
When no one raised their hand, Ballard joked, “I guess I’m the old man in the room. That’s OK—I’ll tell you about some of ONR’s history. ONR has played pivotal roles in ocean and deep-submergence engineering and science. You’re responsible for things you might not even know about.”
Ballard—president and founder of the Ocean Exploration Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to scientific exploration of the seafloor—recently gave his remarks during a special installment of ONR’s Distinguished Lecture Series. The lectures occur monthly and cover various scientific and research topics.
During his presentation, Ballard celebrated his five-decade relationship with ONR, a partnership resulting in game-changing scientific discoveries like underwater hydrothermal vents and the confirmation of plate tectonics; the study of legendary shipwrecks like Titanic; and revolutionary advances in deep-sea vehicles and technology for surveying the ocean floor.
Born in Kansas and raised in California, Ballard earned an Army ROTC commission and began military service in 1964. He was trained as a combat infantry and military intelligence officer, qualifying as a sniper.
However, a growing interest in marine geology, oceanography and submersibles spurred Ballard to transfer to the Navy. His first assignment was as an ONR scientific liaison officer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“At the time, Woods Hole received about 85 percent of its funding from the Navy,” said Ballard.
It was at Woods Hole where Ballard first laid eyes on the ONR-sponsored deep-submergence vehicle Alvin, which would play a critical role in many of Ballard’s aquatic adventures. ONR funded Alvin’s construction.
Launched in 1964, Alvin is the world’s longest-operating deep-sea submersible. It’s still going strong today, with more than 4,800 dives to its credit and a major upgrade coming up in 2020. Woods Hole operates Alvin under a charter agreement with the Navy.
Redefining marine geology and biology
Ballard left active-duty naval service for the Reserve in 1970. He joined the deep-submergence group at Woods Hole, a connection he maintains as an emeritus scholar at the institution.
During the 1970s, with ONR funding and assets such as Alvin, Ballard participated in numerous deep-sea dives that altered conventional scientific thinking about the “blue” in our Blue Planet.
In 1973, Ballard and other scientists descended 10,000 feet to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountainous seam stretching along the center of the Atlantic Ocean, for the first time. Instead of muddy and uniform, the ocean floor revealed itself as a diverse landscape of rocks, lava and geological features of all shapes and sizes—shifting contemporary conceptions of the sea bottom.
The revelation confirmed the role of plate tectonics in the formation of the Earth’s outer skin. Plate tectonics states the Earth's outer shell comprises several large plates gliding over the rocky inner layer above the core.
Four years later, in 1977, Ballard’s team discovered deep-ocean thermal vents, nicknamed “black smokers,” off the coast of South America. The presence of large colonies of clams, mussels, worms and crabs around these scalding vents demonstrated that organisms could thrive without sunlight—the energy source for most life on land—in a process known as chemosynthesis.
“The scientific community had to throw out the old book on geology, thanks to ONR,” said Ballard. “It also had to throw out the old book on biology, thanks to ONR.”
By the early 1980s—after a sabbatical at Stanford University, where he witnessed many technical innovations emerging from nearby Silicon Valley—Ballard touted the exploratory potential of unmanned vehicle systems equipped with fiber optic cables, digital-imaging technology and high-bandwidth telecommunications. Such systems could map areas of the ocean, while manned submersibles could go down for closer inspection.
Ballard convinced ONR to sponsor the development of the deep-submergence laboratory at Woods Hole, as well as the lab’s Argo/Jason remote-operating-vehicle system. His ideas would be tested in 1985, when the Navy tasked Ballard with studying the wreck sites of the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, two nuclear submarines that sank in the 1960s.
After completing this classified mission, Ballard received permission to spend the next few weeks searching for—and locating—the Titanic, an achievement culminating in global fanfare. Ballard became a household name.
“I’m a geologist, but people think I’m a shipwreck guy,” he said. “To be fair, I did go on a wreck binge after that.”
Ballard was referring to his subsequent success in tracking down significant shipwrecks like the German battleship Bismarck; the USS Yorktown (sunk during the Battle of Midway); and President John F. Kennedy’s World War II boat, PT-109.
For his scientific accomplishments, Ballard received ONR’s Robert Dexter Conrad Award in 1992.
Inspiring future explorers
In the 1990s, ONR helped sponsor Ballard’s JASON Project (now a subsidiary of the National Geographic Society), which later inspired his establishment of the Ocean Exploration Trust. Both organizations enable participating schools to stream live video and audio feeds of Ballard’s expeditions into classrooms—so students can learn about oceanography, marine archeology and other scientific disciplines.
In addition, Ballard last year was named the principal investigator of the Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute, an initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The institute supports ocean exploration, responsible resource management, improved scientific understanding of the deep sea and efforts to strengthen America’s maritime-focused “blue economy.”
Ballard’s team will spend the next decade mapping and surveying America’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles offshore, encompassing diverse ecosystems and vast natural resources such as fisheries and energy and other mineral resources. Ballard likened the mission to the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition that mapped out the then-unknown Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest.
“Fifty percent of our nation is underwater, and we plan to map it all,” said Ballard. “Also, I like to call this the ‘Louise and Clark’ expedition, since 55 percent of our scientists are women, including in leadership positions. [From a technological perspective], it will draw upon all our years of support from ONR.”
To close out his lecture, Ballard offered the following advice on how ONR and the Navy can foster another 50 years of ocean innovation.
“Look at all of the Navy’s existing assets and dream of new ways the Navy of the future can use them to its tactical and strategic advantage.”
Warren Duffie Jr. is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.
Office of Naval Research