Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When What You Think You Know Isn't True

Going through my RSS this morning, I found a shared item from Kevin about Bob Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, and what really happened when when the wreck was found:

    According to newly declassified info and the lead scientist himself, Dr. Bob Ballard, the successful search for the Titanic wreck was actually part of a secret hunt for two sunken cold war American nuclear submarines. The USS Thresher and USS Scorpion had both foundered in the 1960s, and the Navy needed to know what had happened to their reactors over the years. When Dr. Ballard approached them in 1982 for funding to find the Titanic with his new deep-diving robot submersible, the Navy saw the opportunity and granted him the money on the condition he first inspect the two wrecks.

    Ballard agreed, and in 1984 set off to investigate. Thresher had been the most advanced attack sub of its time, but in 1963 had an accident during testing that left it without power. Ballard's robotic survey discovered that it had sunk so deep it imploded, turning into thousands of pieces. His 1985 search for the Scorpion—which had disappeared in 1968 with 99 crew, and was thought to be a victim of a Soviet attack—revealed such a large debris field that it looked "as though it had been put through a shredding machine." The survey data revealed the most likely cause of the loss of the sub was one of its own torpedoes going rogue and hitting the sub after firing.

    Once the two wrecks had been visited, and the radioactive threat from both was established as small, Ballard was able to search for Titanic. Due to dwindling funds, he had just 12 days to do so, but he used the same debris-field search techniques he'd used for the two subs, and, of course, it worked.
Ballard's search for Titanic was a very important part of my childhood development. It captured my imagination in a way that many other things did not, and helped put into context for my young mind history, determination, exlporation, science, learning, archaeology, and what could be accomplished with hard work and determination and scientific know-how.

And now I read that the reason Ballard didn't find the wreck immediately is that he was secretly looking for submarines, not that he was looking and didn't know where to go.

I realize as an adult that all of those things I listed, imagination, history, exploration, science, learning and so forth require money to accomplish on a grand scale and that money often comes from sources dedicated to many of the direct opposite of those things. Dear God, I recognize that my job allows me the security and time to travel and be creative. Well, sometimes it does. And that's a trade-off.

But it's a little mind-blowing to see that what I once thought was an expedition for pure science was really an afterthought of a military operation and accomplished because Ballard had already crossed the Ts on his creditors' mission, and that even he was beholden to those creditors.

There's a lesson here. It's a cynical one and something I really don't care to think about.

I need to wash my hands.


Sam said...

Personally, I disagree. Admittedly, I was born after the Ballard expedition, but I think the fact that he found the vessel in just 12 days speaks volumes about the human capability for inventiveness under pressure or something similarly uplifting.

This means that Ballard, who, for all intents and purposes (or all intensive purposes if you learned English from the Internet, as I have) was a pure-minded scientician looking only to find the wreck of the grandest ship to ever hit the ocean floor. He needed funding, the US Navy needed work done, and so despite the delays brought upon him by his Navy contract, Ballard et al. managed to find the Titanic with only a minimal amount of time left, which makes the feat all the more impressive.

grey_zealot said...

I think it's interesting.
I don't think it sullies the discovery or the human drives and ingenuity displayed in the search. I agree with Sam. It is an amazing accomplishment.

Jason Scott said...

Ballard gives a talk on TED.COM about the unexplored portions of the oceans and the underfunding of such events; he has a bunch of breathtaking photos and demonstrations of amazing things found. All well and good, but he does it in the context of "here's new places to mine, here's new places to colonize to solve the crowding problems". It is naive to think these are great ideas, but they're AWESOME ideas if you're trying to get corporate funding.