Over the last century, the RMS Titanic has turned into cultural phenomenon like no other. We’ve seen reports all week on the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage, and read discussions on why the story captivates our minds, from the unseen pictures of its rusting hulk to scientific analysis on why it sank. Titanic has even integrated itself into popular culture, with hit programs like Downton Abbey using the ship’s sinking as a central plot point in its very first episode.
But what if Robert Ballard, the now-famous explorer out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, hadn’t discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985? Would we be as interested in the story? Arguably, someone else might have come along to discover the wreck, but it probably wouldn’t have had the drama associated with Ballard’s story.
That drama relates to why Ballard had access to such state-of-the-art technology to search for Titanic in the first place: he was actually testing it for the U.S. Navy. Two decades earlier the Navy lost two nuclear submarines in the North Atlantic, the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion, in thousands of feet of water. Ballard was commissioned to search for these subs (as well as conduct several as-of-yet unclassified missions) with his deep sea underwater robotic craft, the Argo. Below is a feature from National Geographic that reveals Ballard’s secret story.