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The Ocean’s New Mission Control Center


Space has its Houston. Now the ocean has a “Mission Control” of its own, in the form of the spectacular Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett. The center, unveiled today as part of the university’s new Ocean Science and Exploration Center and Pell Marine Science Library, is the realization of a decades-old dream by Titanic-finder, oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and URI professor Robert (Bob) Ballard.


28 years ago, at the invitation of one of National Geographic magazine’s editors, Ballard had described his vision for the future of ocean exploration. It included ships scanning the sea floor with sonar, towing tethered, remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) gliding near the bottom—mapping and monitoring it in detail—plus others that could sample the ocean floor directly. Pilots on the ships would guide the ROVs and broadcast out their discoveries in real time via satellite to remote scientists and a waiting world.


The magazine commissioned and printed artwork depicting Ballard’s idealized vision. In the years since, Ballard has led expeditions that found the Titanic, plus Kennedy’s PT-109, the Yorktown, the Bismarck, ancient vessels in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, unimagined hydrothermal features and marine life communities, and more. Now, his diagram has become the blueprint for a new era in deep-sea exploration.


A small armada of exploration vessels (including URI’s and the National Science Foundation’s Endeavor and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new Okeanos Explorer) will transmit nearly non-stop video and other feeds from wherever they are around the globe to the Inner Space Center, which will use fast Internet 2 connections to relay the feeds to a suite of similarly-equipped command centers at a host of research stations.


Rather than trying to bring a multitude of experts out for every leg of a lengthy exploration voyage, the network will deliver just-in-time expertise for whatever the ships might encounter. “Scientists in the network must live within 20-minutes drive of one of the centers,” Ballard explained in a packed staff briefing at National Geographic last month, “and they will be on call 24 hours a day. When a ship encounters something unusual, it will stay on site and contact an individual with the right expertise to interpret the find. That individual will make the call—stay and look closer, or move on—and if the decision is to stay, that person will drive to the center and direct the exploration from there.”


Rhode Island taxpayers approved a $14 million bond referendum in 2004 to support the project, and the state also contributed $1 million to network the center to schools across Rhode Island. (Through the Jason Project and Immersion Presents, Ballard has long used two-way video “telepresence” to invite young students to participate in his expeditions.) National Geographic made a major equipment donation to outfit the Inner Space Center’s broadcast studio, and the URI class of 1959 made a $50,000 anniversary gift.


Dignitaries turned out in force for the ribbon cutting, including Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri, both the state’s U.S. senators, and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Navy, both of which have supported Ballard’s research for many years.


“This is not a building,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “This is a window, not a building. It’s a portal into the deepest parts of the ocean, into the wildest dreams and imaginings of our students, our professors, and our people.”


“The center will be broadcasting live from Narragansett to Nagasaki to Nairobi,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s assistant administrator for oceanic exploration and research. “It’s a partnership that is destined for excitement.”


I’ll post more about the unveiling of the Inner Space Center soon. Meanwhile, learn about Enric Sala’s expedition to reefs of the southern Line Islands on the Ocean Now site.

Photographs by Ford Cochran

Planning a live event? You can book Robert Ballard through the National Geographic Speakers Bureau.