RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 after the ship struck an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died, making it one of modern history’s deadliest peacetime commercial marine disasters.
Twenty years ago, James Cameron’s blockbuster film “Titanic” entranced audiences around the globe. But it was less than 10 years ago that Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic in 1985
Upon discovering the fallen passenger ship’s location in 1985, Robert Ballard was hailed as a hero for finding the wreckage largely on his own accord. But according to recently declassified events recounted at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., that isn’t entirely true: Ballard’s discovery was really part of a U.S. government scheme to outwit the Soviets in the midst of the Cold War.
Ballard met with the Navy in 1982 to request funding to develop the robotic submersible technology he needed to find the Titanic.
Ronald Thunman, then the deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare, told Ballard the military was interested in the technology—but for the purpose of investigating the wreckage of the U.S.S.Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion.
Speaking to CNN and CBS about the now-declassified events, Ballard revealed that his expedition was part of a covert US military operation.
Ballard was tasked with finding the USS Thresh and USS Scorpion, two nuclear subs that sank in the 1960s. The Thresher and Scorpion had sunk in the North Atlantic Ocean at depths of between 10,000 and 15,000 feet (3,000 and 4,600 meters).
The Navy also wanted to find out if there was any evidence to support the theory that the Scorpion had been shot down by the Soviets. The data also confirmed that Thresher likely had sunk after a piping failure led to a nuclear power collapse, he added. Details surrounding the Scorpion are less certain.
And the hunt for the Titanic was the perfect front: “They did not want the world to know that, so I had to have a cover story,” he explained.
Ballard would have to track down the submarines before the Russians – then a key rival in the ongoing Cold War – could find them.
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“We knew where the subs were,” Ballard revealed.
“What they wanted me to do was go back and not have the Russians follow me, because we were also interested in the nuclear weapons that were on the Scorpion, and also what the nuclear reactors [were] doing to the environment.”
He said that the mission was “very top secret”, and was hidden from the public.
“I said: ‘Well, let’s tell the world I am going after the Titanic’.”
Unfortunately for Ballard, the covert part of the mission took longer than expected.
After finding the Scorpion, he had just 12 days left to find the Titanic. But his search for the nuclear subs had given him some helpful experience.
He eventually found the Titanic and had four days left over to film the wreckage – because the ship was due to be rented out by someone else.