|Below is an edited excerpt of an interview with Dr. Robert Ballard conducted by NOAA. You may find the original interview here: |
NOAA Interview with Dr. Robert Ballard
Dr. Ballard: My mission in life, in fact if you look at my job description, it’s to explore; and since I am a geologist, that means the entire planet, but naturally 72% of it is beneath the sea, so I spend most of my time beneath the sea and I really have two passions: as a geologist naturally I am interested in the natural history of the great mountain ranges, beneath the sea[;] but since finding the Titanic I developed a passion for human history beneath the sea. In fact I am now convinced that there is more history in the deep sea than all the museums in the world combined …
I encounter incredible challenges and they come in all flavors. Quite honestly, the greatest challenge is to get the opportunity to go to sea. The politics of it, the fundraising. Once we get out to sea, I mean it’s like that’s the easy part. For many it’s the hard part, for us that’s the fun part. It’s getting ready, organizing expeditions, finding the funding, getting the sponsorship, and then getting the permission from the governments in many cases to enter their waters.
While on the Lost City expedition I was trying an experiment. My greatest challenge was to be quiet, because I don’t like being quiet. And that was to run an expedition and to demonstrate that the people really running it didn’t have to be there. Through technology we now call telepresence, we wanted to demonstrate that because of advances in telecommunication technology we could actually move the chief scientist and all the intellectual brainpower of the expedition onto the beach, and still have it conduct the expedition.
One of the driving reasons for doing telepresence is [that] for over thirty years I went down in submarines and I looked out that window. But I was spending the vast majority of my time in the elevator going to and from work. The average depth of the ocean is 12,000 feet and to get down there in a submarine takes two and a half hours in the morning to get to work and two and a half hours to get home at night, and I only spent three hours on the bottom, and if I was lucky I covered one mile. Well, I’m trying to explore features that are thousands of miles long and with this technology we can put our vehicles down because there is no human being in them. They don’t have to go to the bathroom, they don’t have to go to bed, they don’t have to eat. The robot can stay down constantly and therefore we can explore 24 hours a day, instead of three hours a day.
So that technology of telepresence is going to greatly accelerate our rate of ocean exploration. Also our ability to share it with others through [telepresent] technology. I was surprised how quickly they came aboard. I thought that there would be barriers that wouldn’t permit them to make that leap. To leap in fantasy, to be able to jump out of their body and come aboard the ship. I thought there would be much more resistance, but as soon as it got going, and as soon as the action started flowing, and the instant dialogue there were no time delays in the dialogues so it was instant back and forth dialogue. The quality of the imagery that they had, boom they were there much, much quicker than I thought.
What we learned on this expedition was you could really beam people aboard. The complexity is to do it now on a much larger scale. The idea … is that it’s out on a mission in the middle of absolutely nowhere and it makes a discovery. The people aboard are not scientists. They are engineers, they are aquanauts, they are there to operate the technology and to make the initial contact. But then as soon as they make the initial contact, they need to make sure that if they look over their shoulder, the experts are there, or more importantly, they’re in their ear, guiding them. So what we have done is we built and tried for the first time, what we call the Inner Space Center.
Well before a cruise actually takes place, we have to prep it. Our vans are always at the university and we go in and we get them all ready. And initially they look pretty, you know, not very exciting, a bunch of black screens. But when you turn this room on, it is magical. It’s like going through Alice’s looking glass. That’s basically what we’re doing—we’re standing before Alice’s looking glass. And through the use of these beautiful plasma displays we’re able to make our mental trip down to the bottom of the ocean.
Now the van is really in three different parts. Up front is where the action is, that’s where the pilot of Hercules, that’s where the pilot of Argis is, that’s where the navigator is. They are all doing their thing. Next to them is where all the video switching is coming in because all of this is being sent out on a satellite. I am in the back of the bus. I live in the back of the bus, and that’s where we have our command center.
Now for many, many years when I was using submarines and I would want to turn on something and I would reach up, they would slap my hand and say “Don’t touch anything, don’t touch anything!” the pilot always had the best window and I would always say “could I look out your window” and he would say “No, no look out the side window” it was very frustrating to always having your hand slapped and always asking “Mother may I?” When I designed this system I wanted to make sure no one was ever going to slap my hand again, and I was never going to have to ask again “Mother may I?” So everything is on demand and I can have whatever I want, whenever I want it without asking.
You’ll notice that all of our cameras on all of our vehicles are high definition cameras. That is very important because what we are trying to do is to simulate presence. And we’re competing with what the human eye can see out of the window of a submarine. So it is critical as technology permits, you’re always at that leading edge of video technology. Right now that leading edge is high definition. Will there be something better than high definition? Absolutely, probably stereo high definition. Ultimately, we’re trying to develop technology that replicates the human eye, [so] that we can create a true telepresence. So at all stages of the game, we are pushing the technology to make sure it is as good as it possibly can be at this moment. Right now, it is fiber optics and high definition camera systems …
Now once you get the vehicles down, we have sixteen channels that people can come in. And what’s wonderful about our audio system is we can have multiple different conversations. The pilot, because there are two pilots, there is the Hercules pilot, and Argis pilot, and there is ship operator. So there’s always a symphony of voices going on as they’re coordinating. It’s sort of a choreography of dancing vehicles. So they always have to be talking to one another. Well, while that’s going on, the scientists are talking to one another. Because you’re going to have scientists in the command center, but you also have scientists on the beach. And they’re looking at the same monitor.
So there are all these conversations between scientists comparing notes, talking to people in the lab, talking to people on the ship, talking to people on the shore. It’s sort of a party line. But then we also use this to do educational programming. We do shows for museums and aquariums, and science centers, for schools, for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. And so we have another set of conversations going on and what I always love to do is sit in the back of the command center, put my microphone on mute so they can’t hear me, and then I listen in on everybody. It’s sort of sneaky, but you get to listen to all the conversations. It’s really wonderful because you really hear true excellence in operation. It’s a quiet excellence, they’re not noisy, they know what they’re doing.
What I like most about life at sea is the epic journey. The real decoupling with today’s society, leaving today’s society. If you know much about the concept of an epic journey, it begins with a dream, a quest, and a vision. To me it was to be Captain Nemo. But then the consequences of living your dream is that there’s a lot of consequences.
One of them is you have to prepare yourself. That’s what school’s all about- getting ready to go on your epic journey. But then you assemble your team, your Argonauts. It’s not a solo trip. This is not a solo thing, this is a team sport. And you go out with your team and you are challenged. You’re challenged in two ways, you are challenged mentally: did you prepare yourself? Are educated enough for this challenge? And that you can pretty well predict and pass. The hardest one is the test of your heart. Because you’re going to be challenged and you’re going to face failure. You have to overcome failure to reach success. Most people are in failure avoidance, and if they’re in failure avoidance, they are in success avoidance. Failure and success are the yin and yang.
But then you overcome your tests and Neptune shows you the truth, gives you the Golden Fleece. And then the journey’s never over until you return to society and share what you have learned. And that’s what an expedition is all about. You go out with a mission, you assemble your team, you’re tested, you overcome the test, you attain the truth, and you return to society and share it. We’re all on these epic journeys. Everyone’s on an epic journey, ours is just very obvious. So going to sea reinforces the journey we’re all on, which Joseph Campbell so beautifully said, “Life is the act of becoming, one never arrives.” That’s what expeditions should be; you go on an expedition, only to go to the next one and the next one. And hopefully through telepresence a bit you get to go on some of them physically, but most of through telepresence. So I can also go home at night and be with my children and wife.