STILLWATER — In more than five decades of undersea exploration, some of Robert Ballard's greatest discoveries have come when he was looking for something else.
Ballard is perhaps most famous for locating and exploring the wrecks of the Titanic and the World War II German battleship Bismarck in the 1980s.
But he takes special pride in his discoveries of hydrothermal vents in the Galapagos Rift in 1977 — formations no human had seen, and scientists didn't know existed.
Now, through an exploration program he launched five years ago, Ballard is taking a better, broader look at what's at the bottom of the ocean floor.
“Half of our country is down there,” Ballard said Friday during a telephone interview from his Connecticut home. “I'd like to go see what's there.”
Now a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, Ballard will speak at Oklahoma State University on Wednesday as a part of the university's annual Research Week.
Ballard is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. He also served as a senior scientist emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.
Ballard is also the founder of the JASON Project, a science education program that incorporates Ballard's own research.
Last June, Ballard held a teleconference with students from the Boys & Girls Club of Green County, in Pryor, in connection with the unveiling of the new JASON Exploration Command Center.
What's down there?
During Wednesday's speech, Ballard plans to discuss the Ocean Exploration Trust, a program he launched in 2008 to explore areas of the ocean that have never been explored. The trust's ship, Exploration Ship Nautilus, travels the ocean, taking measurements. The ship's crew, called the Corps of Exploration, is made up of graduate students, educators and others, he said.
The name of the crew is meant to evoke Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, Ballard said. That corps struck out into the Louisiana Purchase not to study it in any great depth, but to see what was there, he said.
Much like Lewis and Clark's expedition, the trust's ship isn't a research vessel, he said — it isn't intended so much to take measurements and gather data, as it is to go out and see what it finds. Many of the areas the ship explores haven't been mapped even as well as the surface of Mars, he said.
When the ship is at sea, the crew works around the clock, he said. When the explorers find something noteworthy, they contact the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center. An on-call expert at the university then contacts a team of other researchers around the country, who then go to work analyzing the discovery.
The crew's discoveries are varied, Ballard said — they could be geological formations, new life-forms or shipwrecks. So the ship's crew and the staff at the Inner Space Center need to be ready to respond to a wide range of scenarios, he said.
“We're running the ship basically like the emergency room of a hospital,” Ballard said.
The ocean floor largely remains a mystery to science for a number of reasons, Ballard said. But he suspects one of the main reasons is that people tend to be afraid of the idea of going into the bowels of the earth — even more so than leaving the Earth to explore other planets.
Today, he said, remote technology allows scientists to explore regions of the ocean previous generations of researchers couldn't reach. When a researcher can see the ocean floor from the relative safety of a ship on the surface of the water, it can make the proposition easier to stomach.
“I think we're terrified of the dark. I think we're terrified of going down,” he said. “The key is to assure the human they're safe.”
If you go
Robert Ballard will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Oklahoma State University's Wes Watkins Center. His speech is free to the public. Seating is limited.