Robert Ballard, Ocean Explorer & Entrepreneur

Yesterday, our family got to hear Dr.Robert Ballard speak at the Old Lyme Beach Club in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Ballard is the renowned ocean explorer who is known in popular culture as the discoverer of many famous lost ships, including the R.M.S. Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109.

Ballard is in the news once again. The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and former Navy Commander, will be featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes program tonight. A segment, titled, The Great Explorer, will air. I’ve followed Ballard’s exploits for years, mostly through the pages of National Geographic Magazine. The photographs from his expeditions are some of my favorites that the magazine has ever published. After you hear him speak, you yearn for the excitement of what he does. I’ve always been interested in the technology behind his exploration. Remotely operated vehicles (ROV’s) use a lot of precision machined components. The extreme environment of our ocean floors requires awesome technology.

Ballard is an amazingly passionate man who was born in Nebraska, grew up in Southern California, and spent most of his career based in New England. He is one of Connecticut’s most accomplished citizens.Currently, he is a professor at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, president of the Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration, and chairman of the Ocean Exploration Trust. Ballard gets most of the funding for his exploration from the US Government, but he has also raised a significant amount of funding from the private sector.

He is in the midst of one of his most ambitious projects yet. He spoke about the realization of a 29-year-old dream. That dream is for him to lead ocean exploration from a home base that is far from the ROV’s and ship. In the beginning, submersibles were manned. Then, as technology improved, they were operated remotely/robotically from the command center of the mother ship. Now, with the explosive growth of semiconductor and Internet technology, he can be at his control center at URI and command the action from thousands of miles away. He specifically mentioned the next generation of Internet technology known as Internet 2. He said this technology will transform our lives and our businesses.

Ballard explained what he does in simple terms. He said that he does three things: 1) He builds technology. 2) He does exploration and 3) He does education outreach. He is a huge supporter of science and encourages children all over the world to join in his discoveries. His latest technology will have remote command centers built into a network all over the world. He will bring both the world’s leading oceanography experts, and children into his world. His current expedition is to the Black Sea, where thanks to the “deadness” of that body of water, he intends to find the oldest preserved humans (mummified at the great depths of the water) and their shipwrecks.

Though Ballard is appreciative of his government sponsors, he railed against the politics and bureaucracy that stymies the growth of ocean exploration. He is downright mad about the disproportionate amount of funding that goes to NASA and space exploration. He said that one big reason for this is that for eons, man has been “fundamentally afraid of looking down.” With 85% of the Earth covered by water, he said that there is so much that we don’t know about our own planet. He questions why we waste our time exploring space, when he believes that the origin of man can be determined through the discoveries in the giant mountain ranges that are tens of thousands of feet below the surface of our oceans. At those depths, he has discovered the ancient lifeforms that live in the most inhospitable (lifeless) environment on Earth. His belief is that those lifeforms may be the ones that were at the beginning of it all.

Ballard also had some unique thoughts about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. There probably aren’t too many people in the world who are as knowledgeable about this issue than Ballard, so it was a joy to hear him speak openly about the situation. He gave us an overview of what happened based on his sources and his past knowledge. He didn’t point fingers, but said that whoever is ultimately at fault, should take full responsibility. He said that there are a lot of company’s involved, but that BP is getting most of the public blame. He also regretted a rush to judgment in terms of the future of offshore drilling. It was interesting to hear him voice support for the technology. He made it clear that this was a horrible accident, lives were lost, and the environment is severely damaged. However, he supports offshore drilling in the vast Gulf versus buying oil from countries that don’t like us. Interestingly, this is a very similar opinion to that voiced by T. Boone Pickens when I heard him speak last year.

Our spot overlooking Long Island Sound, was perfect for hearing from a man of the sea. Ballard was a fascinating speaker. He is wicked smart and at 68, still extremely motivated to make a difference. Debbie and I discussed this after we left the venue. We agreed that Ballard was extremely confident and that confidence plays a huge role in his brave discoveries. He has vision, but he also knows how to get things done.

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