Failing His Way to Success
By Janice Leary
Working in the control room of the salvage vessel Seaprobe at two o’clock one morning in 1977, Robert Ballard was jolted by a massive piece of equipment that crashed onto the deck just three feet above him. The ship shook with the force of an explosion. A drill pipe and its attached pod full of sonar and video gear had snapped and plunged into the Atlantic, abruptly ending the explorer’s test run to find the RMS Titanic.
“I lost a lot of credibility with sponsors, who had loaned the $600,000 worth of stuff” for the 1977 expedition. “It took me eight years to recover from that.” But recover he did, despite skepticism from other scientists, failed fund-raising efforts and other setbacks.
After the Seaprobe debacle, Ballard says, “I was back to square one. I had to come up with another way to search for the Titanic.”
He returned to active duty as a U.S. Navy officer assigned to intelligence work. At a time when the Cold War was still being waged, the marine geologist cut a deal with Navy officials. He would offer his expertise if they funded the development and testing of Argo, a camera-equipped underwater robot critical to the Titanic mission, and allowed him to use it for exploration.
The Navy sent Ballard and Argo on classified missions to survey Thresher and Scorpion, two nuclear submarines that sank during the 1960s. Those vessels lay in waters not far from the Titanic. After surveying the Scorpion in 1985, Ballard began looking for the doomed luxury liner. And two miles down, in the dark sea at 49° 56′ W, 41° 43′ N, he found it.
The oceanographer, who later found the German battleship Bismarck, the liner Lusitania, and other historic wrecks, has a simple philosophy. “Failure and success are bedfellows, so I’m ready to fail.”
Ballard’s current port is the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where he has launched an archeological program. Students will join him on his latest quest — exploring ancient trade routes in the Black and Mediterranean seas.