You don't know where the envelope is unless you push on it. Most people think they're pushing the envelope, when they're not even close to the envelope. I love taking people who are the best of the best and taking them beyond where they think they can go. You live for those moments.
Robert D. Ballard, marine explorer
A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Robert D. Ballard
has conducted more than a hundred deep-sea expeditions. He has tracked down significant shipwrecks, such as the German battleship Bismarck,
the lost fleet of Guadalcanal, the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown
[sunk in the World War II Battle of Midway], and most recently John F. Kennedy's boat, PT-109.
But Ballard is best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic in the dark waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Earlier this year, he returned to the site where the famed luxury liner is buried to identify ways to protect her from further decay and preserve her for the generations to come.
Q: Tell us what you found on the 2004 Titanic mission.
A: My original concept of the Titanic was that it was a memorial to a great moment in time, a graveyard to a tremendous number of people. I assumed everyone else would think that way, but to my chagrin they didn't.
For 19 years, I've watched this circus unfold, with salvage operations setting out and people going down there to get married. It was all very sad.
We were hearing that the Titanic was disintegrating before our eyes. So this was an opportunity to see if there was any truth to what we were hearing.
When we got down there, it was very sweet to discover that she looked much the same, except for what the submarines had done to her. It was like going back to see an old friend.
Q: How important is preparation in terms of getting what you're looking for?
A: There's no store out there, no Home Depot. You have to be able to solve all your problems right there. You're nervous about having something go wrong that you can't do anything about, which would force you to go home.
We were having tether problems, because of the severe whipping action of the seas. We were down to our last tether. But we made it.
When I came home, I was able to sit down and look at over 150 hours of high-definition imagery that we took, tens of thousands of stills. I came home tired, but with a smile on my face.
Q: What inspired you to become an explorer?
A: I was a Sputnik kid. I was 12 when the Sputnik [spacecraft] flew over our house. But I always looked at the ocean as the great frontier.
I'm a 13th-generation American. I believe it's in our genes to be pioneers and explorers.
As a kid, I was reading Captain Nemo [from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea] and wanted to go where no one has ever gone before. With the space program, so few people get to go up, whereas in the ocean, anyone can put a mask on and go underwater.
I grew up right on the ocean in San Diego. The beach, the pier, the boats, the snorkeling, the bodysurfing, the scuba diving, the deep-sea diving—it's just been one continuous process.
The ocean has been my constant companion. There are always new things to find.
Q: What's the most important trait that an explorer needs?
A: Curiosity. I'm interested in everything. I love physics, anthropology, art. The ocean has a cornucopia of subject matters. It's just inexhaustible. And I like to understand.
I've learned that Earth isn't chaos. It isn't total confusion, it's ordered. I love adventure with a purpose. I'm not really a thrill seeker. I enjoy the adventure, but not to put my life at risk for a senseless reason.
I love coming back with a discovery and sharing it. That is as exciting as making the discovery. I was always the kid who ran home to tell my mom what I had found that day.
Q: When things don't work out the way you expect them to, how do you cope with those setbacks?
A: To me, the most exciting time is when things aren't going right. That's when you get the true measure of yourself and others.
When everything's going great, you have no idea what you're up to. When the chips are down, I get quiet and my eyes open up wide. I look at the people around me and I'm always amazed at who will stand their ground and who will bolt.
I actually look forward to being at that moment. That's when your life is at its ultimate.
Q: What role do you think that courage plays in those situations?
A: A big one. And leadership. The key is not to blink. You can't bolt or everyone will bolt.
I served in the Navy for 33 years. I was an officer for most of my life, and I learned what courage and leadership means. I also know that it's lonely at times to be a leader, because I can't be one of the guys. There's that great saying from the [Civil War] Battle of Manassas—"Rally around Jackson's banner, he's standing there like a stone wall."
Even when you don't think of yourself as a stone wall, you have to be a stone wall, even though the waves are crashing at you. Those are the defining moments of life.
There's also some inner peace that comes with looking at things in a large context. Life is the act of becoming. A mountain climber climbs Everest not for the view, but for the process of climbing.
The epic journey is to go forth and to overcome, to obtain the truth and share the truth with society. That's our mission. Mental challenges are as difficult to pass as the endurance [tests]. You pass through failure to success. You do not avoid failure.
Q: What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome on your Return to Titanic mission?
A: We were going live on television and we had to have our [robotic] vehicle on the bow of the Titanic at a particular time. But then the vehicle failed.
It was 12,000 feet [3,700 meters] down and the clock was ticking. We were going live in 10 hours. The engineers said, "Don't worry, we'll bring it up and fix it."
It takes three and a half hours to bring it up and three and a half hours to bring it back down. So we brought it up and we fixed it, but when we started back down it failed again. And the team said, "We can't make it."
I said, "Failure is not an option." And I went out on the deck to do the second round of maintenance. I cut both my hands. I was bleeding all over the deck from these wire terminations that would just cut you up like razor blades. The others realized I was serious.
We knew that for the robot to be on the bow of the Titanic when we were to go live, we had to have the ship a half a mile [0.8 kilometers] away, plus or minus four feet [about one meter]. So we had to have our calculations right.
Everyone was checking each other's numbers. We're in the middle of the North Atlantic, in very strong seas, and we had to lower the vehicle three times faster than it's normally lowered, which is a problem because you get your cables all tied up. But we had no choice.
We were still coming down when the show started. Finally, within four minutes of us going live we arrived. And we hit our spot.
The engineers thought they couldn't do it, but I knew they could. You don't know where the envelope is unless you push on it. Most people think they're pushing the envelope, when they're not even close to the envelope.
I love taking people who are the best of the best and taking them beyond where they think they can go. You live for those moments.