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Famous oceanographer, Robert Ballard, was born Robert Duane Ballard on June 30, 1942 in Wichita, Kansas. Robert Ballard is an oceanographer most noted for his work in underwater archaeology. He is most famous for the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic in 1985, the battleship Bismarck in 1989, and the wreck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in 1998. Most recently he discovered the wreck of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 in 2003 and visited the Solomon Islander natives who saved its crew. Ballard is also great-grandson of American Old West lawman Bat Masterson.
Robert Ballard grew up in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California to a mother of German heritage and a father of British heritage. He has attributed his early interest in underwater exploration to reading the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, living by the ocean in San Diego, and his fascination with the groundbreaking expeditions of the bathyscaphe Trieste.
Ballard began working for Andreas Rechnitzer's Ocean Systems Group at North American Aviation in 1962 when his father, Chet Ballard, the chief engineer at North American Aviation's Minuteman missile program, helped him get a part-time job. When Ballard first joined North American, he worked with Rechnitzer on North American's failed proposal to build the submersible Alvin for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In 1965, Ballard graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, earning undergraduate degrees in chemistry and geology. While a student in Santa Barbara, California, he joined Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and also completed the US Army's ROTC program, giving him an Army officer's commission in Army Intelligence. His first graduate degree (MS, 1966) was in geophysics from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Geophysics where he trained porpoises and whales to make a living. After getting married, Ballard returned to Andreas Rechnitzer's Ocean Systems Group at North American Aviation.
Ballard was working towards a Ph.D. in marine geology at the University of Southern California in 1967 when he was called to active duty. Upon his request, Ballard was transferred from the Army into the US Navy as an oceanographer. The Navy assigned Ballard as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
After leaving the Navy in 1970, Ballard continued working at Woods Hole persuading organizations and people, mostly scientists, to fund and use Alvin for undersea research. Four years later Ballard received a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Rhode Island.
Ballard's first dive in a submersible was in the Ben Franklin (PX-15) in 1969 off the coast of Florida during a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution expedition. In the summer of 1970 , Ballard began a field mapping project of the Gulf of Maine for his doctoral dissertation. The project used an air gun that sent shock waves underwater to determine the underlying structure of the ocean floor and the submersible Alvin which was used to find and recover a sample from the bedrock.
During the summer of 1975, Ballard participated in a joint French-American expedition called Phere searching for hydrothermal vents over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but the expedition did not find any active vents. A 1979 expedition was aided by deep-towed still camera sleds that were able to take pictures of the ocean floor, making it easier to find the vent locations.
When Alvin inspected one of the sites they located, the scientists observed black smoke billowing out of the vents, something not observed at the Galápagos Rift. Ballard and geophysicist Jean Francheteau went down in Alvin the day after the black smokers were first observed. They were able to take an accurate temperature reading of the active vent (the previous dive's thermometer had melted), and recorded 350 °C (662 °F). Ballard and Francheteau continued searching for more vents along the East Pacific Rise between 1980 and 1982.
While Ballard had been interested in the sea since an early age, his work at Woods Hole and his scuba diving experiences off Massachusetts spurred his interest in shipwrecks and their exploration. His work in the Navy had involved assisting the development of small, unmanned submersibles which could be tethered to and controlled from a surface ship, and were outfitted with lighting, cameras, and manipulator arms. As early as 1973, Ballard saw this as way of searching for the wreck of Titanic. In 1977, he led his first expedition, which was unsuccessful.
In the summer of 1985, Ballard was aboard the French research ship Le Suroît, which was using the side scan sonar SAR to search for Titanic's wreck. When the French ship was recalled, Ballard transferred onto a ship from Woods Hole, the Knorr. Unbeknownst to some, this trip was being financed by the U.S. Navy for secret reconnaissance of the wreckage of USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, nuclear submarines that sank in the 1960s. The agreement was that after the Navy search was concluded, Ballard would be free to hunt for Titanic.
Knorr arrived on site on August 22, 1985, and deployed Argo, an unmanned submersible that could be used in very deep water. Ballard's plan was to "sweep" Argo back and forth across the ocean floor, not looking for a ship, but for debris. Many Titanic experts had long held that as the ship sank, it would have scattered debris across a wide area. Ballard's team took shifts monitoring the video feed from Argo as it searched the monotonous ocean floor two miles below.
In the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, observers noted anomalies on the otherwise smooth ocean floor. At first, it was pockmarks, like small craters from impacts. Eventually debris was sighted as the rest of the team was awakened. Finally, a boiler was sighted, and soon after the hull itself was found.
Ballard's team made a general search of the vessel's exterior, noting its condition; most significantly they confirmed that Titanic had in fact split in two, and that the stern was in far worse shape than the rest of the ship. Ballard's team did not have much time to explore, as others were waiting to take Knorr on other scientific pursuits, but his fame was now assured. Ballard originally planned to keep the exact location a secret to prevent anyone from claiming prizes from the wreck. Ballard considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts from the wreck. However, in an address to Congress shortly after he returned to the United States, Ballard implored future explorers to devote time to retrieving artifacts to create a museum.
On July 12, 1986, Ballard and his team returned to make the first detailed study of the wreck. This time, Ballard brought Alvin, a deep diving submersible which could hold a small crew. Alvin was accompanied by Jason Junior, a small remotely operated vehicle which could fit through small openings to see into the ship's interior. While the first dive (taking over two hours to dive down) saw technical problems, subsequent dives were far more successful, and produced a detailed photographic record of the wreck's condition.
In June 2003, NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration sponsored an 11-day research cruise to the wreck site aboard the Russian Research Vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh. The vessel was equipped with two three-person submersibles (Mir I and Mir II) capable of diving to depths of 6,000 meters; the depth of the Titanic is 3,800 m (12,467 ft).
The 2003 RMS Titanic Expedition planned four Mir dives to the Titanic to assess the wreck site in its current condition, and provide an opportunity to conduct scientific observations for ongoing research. A second objective of the expedition addressed the study of microbial communities, called rusticles, that consume Titanic’s iron and cling to the wreck like rusty icicles.