Thursday, April 21, 2005


Discoverer of Titanic wreck draws crowd with tales

By Art Aisner
April 19, 2005

Robert Ballard hopes to spark interest of young people in sea exploration, science.
Megan Jensen had a tough choice Monday: attend one of the final classes of the semester or skip it to meet Robert Ballard, the famed scientist/explorer whose discovery of the Titanic and other relics resting on the ocean floor captured her imagination as a child.

Despite final exams looming next week, the naval archaeology and marine engineering junior at the University of Michigan chose the latter. And her career may be better off for it.

As he hobnobbed with local business and community leaders before his talk before a few hundred people at the Washtenaw County Economic Club, Ballard took time to meet Jensen and her friend. He posed for a photo, signed her copy of one of his books and offered some career advice if she is to pursue her obvious passion for marine study. Then he offered her his personal e-mail address and those of students at the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, which he directs.

"That was unbelievable," said an awestruck Jensen, who remembered adding the term deep-water submersibles to her vocabulary at age 10 after seeing Ballard on a television series.

"It's amazing how open he was to hearing about my career goals and that he was willing to advise me to help make those happen. I never expected that."

It's all part of Ballard's approach to strengthening young people's interest in sea exploration, science and math. Sparking such interest has been one of his chief efforts since gaining fame for the 1985 Titanic discovery and others that followed.

"I'm in the process of passing the baton," said Ballard, 63. "These kids will rewrite the history books. It takes a lot to impress them, but we can."

Ballard wowed the crowd at the Ypsilanti on Marriott at Eagle Crest Monday with a slide show depicting his numerous expeditions and recent finds, which include a 1,500 year-old wooden trade ship on the floor of the Black Sea. He said there may be more than 1 million such shipwrecks in deep waters where wood bores don't exist.

Ballard hopes to find many of these shipwrecks and let children around the country participate through the JASON Project, which he founded in 1989 and which now allows roughly 2 million middle school students to view underwater explorations and other scientific experiments in real time from around the globe through fiber optic and satellite technology.

More than 52,000 students in Michigan participate in the program from five network sites around the state, and organizers are looking to expand the project locally, said Pat Thornberry, project manager for JASON in Michigan.

For the last three years, Ballard has sat on a presidential commission on oceanography and lobbied Congress to fund more deep-sea exploration initiatives. The efforts culminated last year with the donation of a U.S. Navy vessel, the USS Capable, the nation's first ship dedicated to sea exploration.

"Our maps of Mars are much better than what we have now on the Southern Hemisphere," Ballard said. "That's how out of whack we are in the dedication of resources for scientific exploration."


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