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Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard set to embark on major new expedition

As he prepares to turn 79 later this month, Titanic discoverer and Lyme resident Robert Ballard is about to embark on the 158th and most extensive expedition of his career.

Next month, a consortium of organizations assembled by Ballard will launch a 10-year, $200 million federally funded effort to study the Pacific Ocean section of the country's vast offshore Economic Exclusion Zone, which includes far-flung destinations such as Guam and American Samoa. 

"Fifty percent of the United States is beneath the sea, but we have better maps of Mars than we do of our country," Ballard said this week about the expedition, which will not only map the bottom but study the makeup of the entire water column, from the shoreline to the abyss.

Meanwhile, Ballard and National Geographic have just released his autobiography, titled "Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man Who Found Titanic." In it, Ballard publicly discusses for the first time his dyslexia, President Ronald Reagan's personal approval for him to use Navy equipment to search for the Titanic after a classified search for sunken U.S. submarines, and even the White House dinner where he saw Princess Diana ask John Travolta to dance. It's won praise from James Cameron, Ken Burns and Henry Kissinger, among others.

On Monday at 10 p.m., the National Geographic Channel also will premiere a television special called "Bob Ballard: An Explorer's Life." 

It's the book's revelation of dyslexia that will surprise most people who have followed Ballard's career. He said that while he was not diagnosed with the condition, which makes it difficult to read, until later in life, it has helped him overcome failure and achieve his goals. 

Ballard pointed out Wednesday that as much as 20% of the population has dyslexia and that those with the condition have a 50% higher probability of committing suicide. In addition, he said many people in prison have dyslexia and the majority of them are people of color who are not diagnosed due to lack of resources. 

"I've made a decision to spend the rest of my life, however long that may be, to help people with dyslexia," he said.

The newest expedition

Over the course of his long career, Ballard has located modern wrecks such as John F. Kennedy's PT-109, the Lusitania and the USS Yorktown as well as ancient ones that plied trade routes in the Black Seas. He has searched for Amelia Earhart's plane, discovered strange lifeforms in the deep ocean and made groundbreaking discoveries involving the geology and chemistry of the ocean. He's also developed ocean exploration vehicles as well as a system in which scientists and students around the globe can participate in his expeditions in real time.

Today, Ballard and his Ocean Exploration Trust are based in the Deshon-Allyn house on the campus of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. In one of the rooms, which he calls the Looking Glass, is a command center where he can monitor the work of the trust's high-tech ship E/V Nautilus.

Ballard said that when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a competition to fund the exploration of the EEZ, he assembled a group of organizations he's had long affiliations with, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Rhode Island, to join the Ocean Exploration Trust and submit a proposal. He said the group was awarded funding of $20 million a year for five years with an extension for another five years. 

He said the Nautilus has been retrofitted and lengthened for the expedition and a fleet of remote and autonomous vehicles has been assembled to explore an area as big as the country's 50 states. Information from those vehicles will be uploaded in real time to satellites so scientists thousands of miles away can monitor the work. 

Ballard said while he is continuing to bring in younger scientists and engineers, more than half of them women, to join his team and take over for him at some point, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on his work has him itching to get back on the water. 

"I haven't been to sea in a year. I'm ready to go," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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