Before he traced the Titanic, Robert Ballard was engaged in a mission that more resembled the gripping plot of the Hunt For Red October than James Cameron’s immortal love story.
Over 20 years after he found the wreck of the Titanic, Bob Ballard says the entire operation was just a cover-up for a much bigger plan. In a scheme involving the highest authorities of the US Navy, the famous oceanographer conducted the search for two American nuclear submarines that had disappeared in the Atlantic in the 1960s.
The oceanic seabed became a graveyard for over 200 crewmen of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, two nuclear submarines that, due to unknown reasons, had sunk somewhere in the Atlantic. The Defense Department was particularly interested in finding the two losses as it feared that, if found by the Soviets, the vessels might reveal US Navy’s secrets.
The veil of secrecy was necessary. Otherwise, the Soviets might have smelled what the Americans were up to and find the wrecks faster. Bob Ballard as an acclaimed sea explorer provided a perfect alibi for the intensified presence of US ships on the Atlantic. The deal was simple: Find the submarines and we will sponsor the excavation of the Titanic. “I couldn’t tell anybody,” says Ballard.
The unusual cooperation began in 1984 and soon proved very successful. Ballard’s latest invention, an underwater robot craft, meticulously scanned the seabed of the North Atlantic and found the remnants of the two submarines. Although both vessels were broken in hundreds of pieces, Ballard’s team managed to diagnose that the USS Scorpion had probably been sunk by an enemy torpedo.
Sworn to secrecy, Ballard preferred not to ask too many questions. “We handed the data to the experts. They never told us what they concluded – our job was to collect the data. I can only talk about it now because it has been declassified,” he says. He simply wanted to finally be able to search for the Titanic, yet the US Navy gave him only 12 days, after which the equipment and money were to be withdrawn.
With less than two weeks, Ballard used the technique he had learned during his classified mission. If the submarines were in shambles then the Titanic, after the collision with the iceberg, must have broken into several pieces, too. The tactic of looking for debris bore fruits. Shortly before the deadline, Ballard found the famous line cruiser, yet he had to postpone any further works until 1986.
Ballard visited the Titanic again on July 12, 1986. This time there were no cover-up operations, just a purely scientific mission that was to give the world the first detailed pictures of the cruiser since its tragic end in 1914. With his typical coolness, Ballard said: “If you can plan it out, and it seems logical to you, then you can do it. I discovered the power of a plan.”