Modern Explorers: Dr. Robert Ballard

Before there was Kate and Leo steaming up the silver screen, there was a team of makeup artists and camera crews. And before that, there was Robert Ballard. Well, maybe that connection is a long stretch, but what we're trying to say is that this modern explorer was the man responsible for the discovery of the doomed luxury liner. And Ballard's laundry list of achievements and honors doesn't stop there.

From cramped spaces to the future of exploration, Dr. Robert Ballard shares memories and thoughts on his 50 years of discoveries at a league under the sea all his own.

FOX Fan: You talk about telling your parents of your dreams of exploring the oceans at a young age. Tell me about that…

Dr. Robert Ballard: I told them when I was a child that I wanted to be Capt. Nemo. The great thins is they didn’t laugh. They sort of probed and said, “tell me more about it.” They took me down, and I saw a diesel submarine for the first time … and later I would become a Naval officer for 30 years. I think the key was that they encouraged the dream and let it flow. It helps to be educated and to be smart, it helps – but it’s really your passion that gets you through the storms of life you’ll encounter.

When a child has a dream, there’s a root in there somewhere. And it’s important not to throw away the dream.

FF: Did you ever want to be anything else?

RB: No. Not really, at least. I had second thoughts when I didn’t get into Scripps. Then, I had to go prove that I was worthy. I had self doubts – if I can’t go to Scripps, I thought, can I pull this off? But the passion was so strong … I did it.

FF: You joined the army – then the Navy after being part of the ROTC. Why did you sign up? Was there an ideological reason behind it?

RB: When I went to UC Santa Barbara, it was mandatory. They only offered the Army … Army ROTC. We had to do it for the first two years, but then when I enlisted, I asked to be transferred to the Navy.

I loved the Navy – the Army was sort of top down. The Navy, though, has much greater tradition. Their motto is “sail in the interest in the queen.” In other words, do the right thing. Still to this day, the Navy [mentality]is you’re in charge. I liked the sense of independence and trust in command. It was valuable learning for me, because there I was conducting my own battle, but the same kinds of leadership responsibilities were present. The military background was very helpful – and many explorers throughout history did have a military background, actually.

FF: How long were the missions you went on? What was the longest?

RB: Typically you were gone for a month at any one time, but then you’d come back only to re-supply and go out for another month. In the early part of my career, I usually did a few months at sea with a few trips in and out getting food and rotating crews out. Now, with this new technology we just acquired, we have a lot of technological stuff that will go on, as well.

FF: Tell me a little about this new technology you’re talking about?

RB: So, we have these two ships, and the mission of each of these ships is to go where no ship has ever gone. On board the ships you have to have people to run the ship, then technicians and engineers. So, then whose the intellect behind it? In the old days, it would be a scientist in a specific field who had a grant. So maybe a geologist, oceanographer, or on and on. But since we’re going into the unknown, we don’t know what we’re going to find, we don’t know what kind of scientist we would even need! There will be one senior scientist on the trip. And their job is to be senior enough to know who needs to be brought into play.

We’re running these new missions like an emergency room – open the ambulance doors, what could you find? It could be a number of things … so they have special doctors on call who would come in depending on the injury or situation. We’re doing something similar; we’re even calling this doctors on call.

The technological part of this is also in that there’s a vehicle that sees something, say 20,000 feet under the ocean. The mission control room on the ship is connected by satellite to this room back on land we’re calling the Inner Space Center . So, you’re seeing everything they’re seeing in the control room on the ship.

Through the new Internet 2 anyone could technically follow these ships 24/7.

FF: What are you expecting to find?

RB: Well – that’s the exciting part. It’s really impossible to say. This is my 50th year in the field, and my real discoveries of importance were made by accident looking for something else. That means there are phenomenal things out there entirely undiscovered.

FF: Space was cramped on your ships … Tell me about it?

RB: It’s ridiculous – I’m 6’2”. My first ship was six feet in diameter. And three people were stuffed in. It takes two and a half hours to get to work, and you get there cramped up in a ball and freezing. You work for three and a half hours, look out a window that’s four to six inches in diameter. And you have a flashlight. The whole day you probably go about one nautical mile.

FF: Were there ever any moments where you were really scared?

RB: Oh, definitely. In 1973, I was on a joint American and French expedition and a fire broke out … we almost didn’t make it out. Then one time while in Guadalcanal we got caught in a bunch of cables. On the Lusitania expedition the submarine got caught in nets.

I’m not interested in the adventures of almost dying, anymore!

FF: Other than the Titanic, which some might say you’re most famous for, what was the one discovery that really amazed you, blew your mind?

RB: The hydro thermal vents – that discovery changed our understanding of the origin of life on earth and explained where life might exist elsewhere in our own solar system.

FF: What has been one of your favorite memories doing the work that you do – under or above water?

RB: I do a lot of outreach with children – check out ImmersionLearning.org or the JasonProject.org. These are programs where we turn kids on to science. Now we’re wiring up schools with the same Internet 2 that I was talking about earlier, working with boys and girls clubs, there are so many things. With these [children] the era of exploration has just begun, not ended.