Ballard opens new 'Inner Space Center' at URI

Bob Ballard addresses a live audience during his first Webcast from the mission control room of the newly opened Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography on Thursday.

Narragansett, R.I. - In 1982, the senior editor at National Geographic Magazine called Bob Ballard into his office.

At the time, Ballard had not yet found the RMS Titanic, which in 1985 would bring him international acclaim, but he had made what he still calls his most important discovery - giant tube worms that live in complete darkness next to geothermal vents in the deep ocean.

The magazine was preparing a story on the world's oceans and asked Ballard to describe his vision of the future of oceanic exploration, even though the technology for such a vision would not exist until after the turn of the century.

What Ballard envisioned was a system in which remotely operated vehicles tethered to a surface ship would beam video to scientists and students from around the world. This would allow them to participate in the discoveries in real time even though they were thousands of miles away.

The image ran in the magazine and Ballard has since carried a poster-sized reproduction of it wherever he's gone, including his office at the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium, which has been his home base for more than a decade.

Now, at the newly opened Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, that 27-year-old vision has become a reality.

And on Thursday, Ballard starred in the first Webcast from the Inner Space Center to students around the country in which he talked about his discovery of ancient shipwrecks last summer and his plans for next summer's expeditions.

"It's been a long haul, but it's finally done," he said, leaning back in a chair just minutes before the first Webcast.

URI opened the $15 million Center for Ocean Exploration and Archeological Oceanography at its Narragansett Bay campus in June. The heart of the new building is the Inner Space Center, which Ballard likens to Mission Control in Houston, where NASA monitors spaceflights (he even refers to his monitoring room as Mission Control).

Banks of computer screens and television monitors are dwarfed by a 20-foot-high screen that towers over the room and shows feeds from the different expeditions.

An exact replica of the room is being built at the aquarium, where visitors will be able to watch the expeditions and participate in them.

"When you go (to Mystic) you'll be entering this facility and then you go aboard the ship," Ballard said.

Ballard plans to use three research ships - URI's Endeavor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Okeanos and the 215-foot Nautilus, owned by his nonprofit organization, the Ocean Expedition Trust.

His plan is to have one ship out exploring in each of the world's three major oceans at any one time and beaming images back to the Inner Space Center.

Ballard likened the operation of the Inner Space Center to running an emergency room with on-call doctors.

"No one knows what the ambulance will deliver at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. It could be a gunshot victim or someone from an accident," he said. "Our ships are like those ambulances; they'll be roaming the oceans looking for discoveries, but no one knows when one will be made. We're going to be open 24 hours a day."

When a discovery is made and experts are needed to analyze the find and talk to scientists and engineers aboard the ship and at the Inner Space Center, a call will go out to experts based at 12 locations around the country. If they are home they will be able to log on to their laptop computers and access the live video and audio from the boat.

They will then have 20 minutes to get to their respective institutions, where they will access consoles that will allow them to guide the search and offer input to the scientists and engineers.

At the same time, Ballard said, students at sites across the country will be alerted of a new discovery and will be able to watch and listen live.

Ballard said the system will allow him to move from discovery to discovery and share findings with other researchers, who then could mount their own return expeditions.

"This is a discovery-making machine," he said.

Ballard said he has no plans to keep what he finds a secret, even though some have questioned his plan to distribute the information.

Next to the mission-control room is a television studio and production room where Webcasts are sent out to schools, Boys' and Girls' Clubs and other locations via www.immersionlearning.org.

During the first Webcast Thursday afternoon, students in New Hampshire and Michigan asked Ballard questions and participated in online polls. When one girl asked why he became an explorer, Ballard said it happened after he read Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as a child and decided he wanted to be like Captain Nemo. It's no surprise, then, that he named his new discovery ship Nautilus, the same as the fictional Nemo's vessel.

"I thought it would be cool to be an explorer and I'm living my dream," he told the girl.

Last summer Ballard told the students that he found two circular stone walls in 180 feet of water in the Aegean Sea, an area which had been dry land 9,000 years ago.

He also described finding wrecks off Turkey that were 2,000 and 1,500 feet deep, respectively. Under the wine jugs that lay on the ocean bottom could be other cargo.

Ballard plans to return next summer to explore the stone walls and the two wrecks as well as to look for even older ones in the Aegean and Black seas that he hopes could date back to the time of the mythical story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. He particularly likes to search for ancient wrecks in the Black Sea because the lack of oxygen in deep water there preserves those ships.

Ballard also plans to look for life forms near underwater volcanos off Santorini in Greece and to make his first explorations of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

For Ballard, it's the discoveries to come that are most exciting, not the ones he's already made, especially since just 5 percent of the world's oceans have been explored.

"This is about ships exploring and making discoveries," he said. "And I think there's going to be lots of them."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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