“No child had ever said to me, ‘that’s cool!’ about my work,” he reflects. “But as soon as I find an old rusty ship, I’m inundated.” Go figure. Ballard’s Jason project now allows nearly two million students and 33,000 teachers to join him in his work through the modern miracle of telepresence… each year! His new facility in Mystic carries that educational mission a notch farther and his imagination continues to grow.
“When I first arrived in 1967, the best way of getting to work was submarines. So I was a pioneer in using submarines to explore the deep sea. During the course of that work, it became glaringly obvious that physically going to the ocean floor was not going to work. With the average depth of the ocean at 12,000 feet, it used to take me two and a half hours just to do the descents. That’s a five hour commute round trip! My average bottom time was three and half hours and I could only explore about a mile. It was ludicrous. “Since 71 percent of the planet is under water, and there are only five submarines in the world that can go to that depth, and each of them can only carry three people… this means that on a really good day, you might have 15 people exploring. So I got out of submarines after decades of diving, and went to Stanford, circa 1979, and taught geophysics.” While there teaching, Ballard saw the acorn of a technology advance that would grow into Silicon Valley. The rest would prove to be historic for him and the ocean science community. He was on a roll and I let him go. “What I was most interested in was fiber optics. You know in the movie The Graduate where the guy whispers to Dustin Hoffman’s character: ‘It’s plastics.’ Bret Gilliam Well, I’ll tell you, it’s fiber optics! I could see the logical breakthrough in my world because of fiber optics.” This forever relieved explorers of the need to physically dive the depths of the ocean and deal with the limitations of time, not to mention the associated hazards. Physically, he could be relieved of the need to travel to the work site if an underwater robot observer could communicate what it was ‘seeing’ effectively. This led to the development of the Argo-Jason concept.
“Argo-Jason was named in honor of Jason and the Argonauts, the first explorers of western civilization. This allowed us to put robots under the ocean and leave them there, around the clock. Instead of three hours, we now had 24 hours, and could do 10 times the work. Instead of three people crammed into this little metal ball, freezing to death with the angst of ‘we could all die down here,’ the idea was to build a control center and do it all by telepresence. Now I can turn on a monitor, and I’m under the ocean, the TV monitors are my windows. More importantly, I can have 20 other people with me. So when something swims by, there is all this mental intellect gathered together, plus a satellite link. Say the world’s expert on something is fishing in Montana, we can go get them online, then ask, hey, take a look at this!” With that opener, we began talking about what got him started along this path.