Robert D. Ballard (born 1942) has made some of the most important underwater discoveries in the late twentieth century in regards to science and exploration. Not only did he help advance the concept of plate tectonics and make important discoveries about ocean life, he also managed to find some of the most famous shipwrecks in history, including the German battleship Bismarck, the U.S.S. Yorktown from World War II, and the luxury liner Titanic.
Thanks to advances in technology, including night-vision cameras and fiber optics, scientists like Ballard can help bring information about the ships back up to the surface. "There's more history preserved in the deep sea than in all the museums of the world combined," Ballard suggested to Paul Karon in the Los Angeles Times. Despite all of his accomplishments in geology, oceanography, and archaeology, Ballard still gets most excited about his capability to scout new territories. "I think of myself as an explorer-that was always my career goal," he told Karon. "If I could go to Mars tomorrow, I'm gone."
Robert Duane Ballard was born June 30, 1942, in Wichita, Kansas, to Chester Patrick (an aerospace executive) and Harriet Nell (May) Ballard. However, Ballard and his three siblings were raised in southern California, where he developed a passion for the sea. The fair-haired teenager would spend much of his time at the beach near his home in San Diego, becoming an avid swimmer, surfer, fisherman, and scuba diver. Ballard's father was a flight engineer at a testing ground in the Mojave Desert, but was later appointed the U.S. Navy's representative to the famous Scripps Institute of Oceanography. When he was still in high school, Ballard wrote a letter to the Scripps Institute that asked, "I love the ocean-what can I do?" he recalled to Bayard Webster in the New York Times. Subsequently, the school invited him to attend a summer program.
Ballard went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and geology in 1965 from the University of California at Santa Barbara, but he never lost interest in the sea. After graduating, he pursued post-graduate work at the University of Hawaii Institute of Geophysics in 1965-66, where he made money as the keeper of two trained porpoises at Sea Life Park. He went back to the University of Southern California in 1966-67, and meanwhile, in 1965, he signed up with the U.S. Army in its intelligence unit, where he eventually became second lieutenant. In 1967, he joined the U.S. Navy as a naval oceanographic liaison officer, making lieutenant junior grade. For this stint, he was sent to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a private, not-for-profit research organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After his naval assignment was completed, he decided to stay on the East Coast and work at Woods Hole, continuing his research in marine geology and ocean engineering.
Studied Plate Tectonics
Joining Woods Hole as a research associate in ocean engineering in 1970, Ballard also pursued his doctorate degree at the University of Rhode Island. He began studying plate tectonics, which was a vanguard theory at the time, and earned his Ph.D. in 1974 with a dissertation on the subject. Plate tectonics suggests that the Earth's land masses are divided into sections, or plates, that move independently of the planet's mantle. This movement causes shifting of the land, which results in earthquakes at the boundaries (fault lines) and can also cause the shape of the land masses to change over time. Also in 1974, Ballard was promoted to assistant scientist in geology and geophysics at Woods Hole. Meanwhile, he was becoming interested in the research submarine Alvin, which was equipped with a remote arm for retrieving samples from the floor of the ocean. He was also intrigued by the idea of studying the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a portion of a global underseas mountain range called the Mid-Ocean Ridge. When he suggested that the three-person Alvin be sent down, other scientists doubted the value of using a submarine for the project. "There were quite a few people … who felt that submarines were expensive toys that geologists played with, and that no real good science would come out of them," Ballard remarked to James Lardner in the Washington Post.
Nevertheless, by 1974, Ballard was named head of Project FAMOUS (French-American Mid-Ocean Underseas Study) and proved the naysayers wrong. The expedition began in the summer of 1974 with a fleet of four ships and three research submarines. During the project, Ballard designed a survey sled called Angus that carried a camera and could be controlled acoustically. It was sent down before Alvin's dives in order to take pictures so that the scientists could determine where they wanted to go. Ballard was on board the Alvin during most of its 17 dives to the ocean floor and thus was able to witness the rift formed at the juncture of the plates that form the eastern and western sides of the Atlantic seabed. In addition to the geological importance of the mission, Ballard and his team came back with data that could help predict earthquakes, and they also found beds of natural resources such as petroleum and minerals.
In 1975 and 1976, Ballard and many of the Project FAMOUS team went to the Cayman Trough, a depression in the ocean floor just south of Cuba. They found that they had correctly predicted recent volcanic activity under the sea and picked up rock samples from the mantle of the Earth's crust. In 1976, Ballard was named an associate scientist at Woods Hole, and would later be promoted to associate scientist in ocean engineering in 1978 and senior scientist in 1983. In 1979, he embarked on what would yield one of his most exciting discoveries. Off the coast of Ecuador on the Galapagos Rift, where plates were moving more quickly and strange variances in water temperature were recorded, he discovered that hydrothermal vents were erupting from cracks in the Earth's crust and that marine life-crabs, clams, and tube worms-could survive there by chemosynthesis. The journey and the underwater footage was used in a 1980 National Geographic special called Dive to the Edge of Creation.
The amazing creatures and their means of survival led biologists to hypothesize that life may have begun by this chemical method, but in shallow water. On another trip near Baja California, Ballard took along some biologists and found even more proof. Tall geysers that he dubbed "black smokers" were found to sustain surrounding marine life, never before seen, that fed on the chemical-rich dark smoke gushing out of the 10-to 20-foot spews that threatened to melt the submarine's port holes. Marine biologists, up to that point, had assumed that no creature could survive so deep in the sea, where sunlight never penetrates. Though he is not a biologist and cannot authoritatively comment on whether life may have started by chemical methods, Ballard does believe that the smoky chimneys may be responsible for much of the world's mineral deposits.
Unmanned Sea Exploration
In the early 1980s, Ballard went to work on developing technology for unmanned sea exploration. Sending teams of scientists is expensive and often fruitless, so Ballard decided that robotic means could lower costs and increase productivity for such projects. With funding from the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation, Ballard formed the Deep Submergence Laboratory at Woods Hole in 1981. He thus designed the Argo-Jason system, an automated submarine loaded with robotic equipment that could function as the scientists' eyes and ears underwater. Argo, about the size of a car, has three video cameras that can see in almost total darkness, and its smaller assistant, Jason, has a robotic lens and arms and can be sent out to retrieve items from the ocean. With it, Ballard told Webster in the New York Times, "We hope to get even clearer pictures of the sea floor and what goes on down there."
Discovered Titanic in the North Atlantic
Some of Ballard's colleagues were dubious that his system would allow for unmanned exploration, but he did not waver. For its maiden run, Ballard sent Argo-Jason down to search for the British luxury liner Titanic, which had hit an iceberg and sunk during its maiden voyage on the night of April 14-15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers. Ballard had long been intrigued by the legendary ship and its story, and eventually convinced the U.S. Navy to furnish a research ship, Knorr, and maps of the area where the ship was thought to have gone down. He assembled a group of French sonar researchers who set out for the North Atlantic in the summer of 1985. In late August, Ballard and his crew arrived on the Knorr, sending down the cameras and waiting for a sign. "The bottom was just going by and going by," Ballard told Karon in the Los Angeles Times. "And it's a boring bottom."
Less than a week later, on September 1, 1985, the Argo sent up an image of one of the Titanic's boilers as Ballard watched on a television monitor. He immediately knew it was the right ship, because he had studied it in detail. "It was a fluke," Ballard noted in U.S. News and World Report. "Any fishing boat could have done it." In a week and one day, the Argo videotape camera and the still camera on the Angus captured over 20,000 images of the shipwreck, including the damaged area and hundreds of artifacts such as bottles, china, a silver tray, and the barren lifeboat cranes. Ballard was strongly moved by the scenes and opposed anyone who wanted to profit from it, stating that instead, it should be declared an international memorial. The next summer, Ballard went down in the Alvin along with Jason Jr., a remote "eyeball" that went inside the ship, and saw even more personal items, including a man's shoe and a porcelain doll's head. In 1997, a blockbuster film would be released based on the events of that tragic night, but fictionalized to provide an old-fashioned love story as well. Ballard remarked in Newsday, "The movie is excellent. It's a great Romeo and Juliet love story. I saw the ship I never saw, in all of its beauty and elegance."
After this notable discovery, Ballard also found the German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic Ocean and in 1997 announced that he had found eight sailing ships, some dating back before the days of Jesus Christ, 2,500 feet below the surface off the coast of Tunisia in the Mediterranean. By then, Ballard was president of the Institute for Exploration based out of Mystic, Connecticut, and a senior scientist emeritus at Woods Hole. The finding of the Roman ships was especially important because it established that underwater archaeology could be performed in the deep seas of up to 20,000 feet. Previously, archaeologists limited their research to shipwrecks in coastal waters of less than 200 feet because they thought ancient mariners did not venture into deeper waters. In May 1998, Ballard made another major discovery when he photographed the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, sunk in the Pacific Ocean by Japanese forces on June 7, 1942, during World War II's Battle of Midway. It was located in almost 17,000 feet of water, one mile deeper than the Titanic, about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. The National Geographic Society helped sponsor the work.
Ballard has raised eyebrows among some fellow scientists due to what they consider his enthusiasm to seek publicity. He has appeared in television programs, given lectures, and written for National Geographic Magazine, in addition to writing in professional journals. He also established the Jason Foundation for Education and the Jason Project, which aims to increase students' interest in science. Like cosmologist Carl Sagan and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, Ballard has done much to bring science into the homes of laypeople, an accomplishment that he considers his public duty. "[Sagan and Cousteau] have probably sometimes lost some of the regard of their fellow scientists," Ballard admitted to Webster in the New York Times. "But look at the good they've done by making science exciting and making people aware of it! And don't forget that my science is paid for by some poor coal miner whose taxes go to support me while I'm having fun, so I feel it's responsible to go to him and the public and tell them what I'm doing."
In 1966, Ballard married Marjorie Constance Jacobsen, a medical receptionist. They have two sons, Todd Alan and Douglas Matthew, and live in Hatchville, Massachusetts. Ballard has won a number of awards, including the Science award from the Underwater Society of America in 1976 for exploration and research conducted in the Cayman Trough; the Compass Distinguished Achievement Award from the Marine Technology Society in 1977 for leadership in the area of deep submergence exploration; and the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981 for the best scientific paper in a journal of science. He also received the Cutty Sark Science Award from Science Digest, 1982, for exploration conducted in Mid-Ocean Ridge, including the discovery of underwater hot springs and their unique animal communities. In 1985, he won a grant for $800,000 along with the Secretary of the Navy Research Chair in Oceanography, and in 1986, he was given the Washburn Award from the Boston Museum of Science. He was awarded the prestigious Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society in 1996. Ballard has written or cowritten 15 books and has published numerous articles in journals and magazines, including National Geographic.
Further Reading on Robert Ballard
Contemporary Authors, volume 112, Gale Research, 1985.
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book II, Gale Research, 1985.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 20, 1998, p. A3; June 5, 1998, p. B4.
Dallas Morning News, July 31, 1997, p. 1A.
Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1997, p. D3.
Newsday, February 5, 1998, p. A8.
New York Times, December 28, 1982. p. C1; September 10, 1985, pp. A1, C3.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 31, 1997, p. 1A.
U.S. News and World Report, September 23, 1985, p. 9.
Washington Post, August 31, 1982, p. B1.
"Biography: Dr. Robert Ballard," National Geographic web site, http://www.nationageographic.com (July 12, 1998).