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U.S. Ship That Found the Titanic Will Attempt an Inside View

Times Staff Writer

The American research ship that discovered and photographed the wreckage of the British liner Titanic last September will sail again within two weeks to explore the sunken liner’s interior.

During a lecture Wednesday at UC Irvine, Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts said a new underwater robot will be sent into a large hole in the Titanic’s cabin that originally had been covered by an ornate glass dome.

Under the dome was the elaborate grand staircase that led Titanic’s first-class passengers down to the most sumptuous parts of the ocean liner. Photographs of the opening taken last September show that the staircase is missing.

Ballard said the new robot, dubbed J.J. “for Jason Jr.,” is small, very maneuverable and outfitted with the latest in ultra-sensitive video cameras that can produce “broadcast quality” images. In effect, Ballard said, such cameras “can see in the dark.”

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It is inky dark at the Titanic’s resting place--about 13,000 feet below the surface on the slope of a canyon about 800 miles east of Cape Cod. The water is about 36 degrees, and exerts tremendous pressure--about 6,000 pounds per square inch or the weight of 20 refrigerators concentrated on your big toe.

Ballard said he plans to dock a larger mother robot near the hole in the cabin, then send the smaller robot inside.

How far inside? “Just enough,” Ballard said. “I’ve got 200 feet of tether, and I doubt seriously if I’ll put that much of it out.”

Such robots were used last summer by two research ships--the U.S. Navy’s Knorr and France’s Le Suroit--to jointly search 150 square miles of ocean floor for the 882-foot-long, 66,000-ton Titanic.

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Advertised as Unsinkable

The liner, the biggest and most luxurious of its day and advertised as unsinkable, scraped against an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 lives were lost.

Le Suroit, which scanned 80% of the search area, had to return to port before the Titanic was located. The crew aboard the Knorr actually made the discovery on the 56th day of the 60-day expedition, but Ballard stressed that it was the effort of the French crew that made the discovery possible.

The discovery came on Sept. 1, when the ghostly image of one of the Titanic’s monstrous boilers was sent from Argo, a self-propelled, deep-diving robot, to a television screen aboard the Knorr. The boiler was part of the debris shed by the ship as it plunged to the ocean floor.

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The whoops from the Knorr’s crew sounded like “lunchtime at the zoo,” Ballard said, but then the cheering faded as the implications sank in.

It was about 1 a.m., “an hour and 15 minutes before the (actual time that the) Titanic sank,” Ballard said. “It hit us hard. We went from this giant up to this giant down as we realized we were in identical sea conditions--flat calm--were in the very spot, and we could feel it.”

The crew went to the Knorr’s stern for a brief memorial ceremony, he said.

Afraid that the new, expensive Argo might collide with the wreckage or become entangled, Ballard sent down Argus, an older robot affectionally called “Dope on a Rope” because it takes its pictures without knowing what it’s aiming at. It took 12,000 color photographs that were developed aboard the Knorr.

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‘Catastrophically Imploded’

“Based upon those 12,000 pictures we took, we could see that half of the ship had catastrophically imploded,” Ballard said.

The Titanic, slowly tilting stern up as its bow filled with water through a 300-foot-long gash, eventually stood perpendicular in the water, survivors said. It hung there for perhaps 30 seconds, then started its straight-down plunge to the bottom.

The bow half of the ship, already flooded, was protected from the crushing pressure of the deep sea, but the stern half was pulled below the surface before it could fill with water, Ballard said.

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The result was that at a depth of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, the outside water pressure overpowered the inside air pressure and crushed the stern portion “into a million pieces, some of them quite large,” Ballard explained.

While those pieces were scattered in a mile-long trail behind the wreckage, the forward half of the ship settled gently to the bottom, more or less intact.

“The bow now sits upright on the bottom, an incredible scene to see: that big, magnificent ship sitting upright on the bottom,” Ballard said.

That surviving portion is where “all the beautiful compartments” are located, he said. It is into that section that J.J. will be sent.

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Will J.J. grab a few souvenirs on its way out? Absolutely not, Ballard said. The artifacts as well as the ship itself must respectfully be left in place, he insisted.

A bill that has passed the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would direct that treaty negotiations be started to protect the Titanic as an international maritime memorial. The bill also would urge, but not compel, Americans to leave the wreckage alone.

After it became known that the Titanic had been found, several salvage projects were announced.

Texas oil millionaire Jack Grimm, who financed three unsuccessful attempts to find the Titanic, said he will finance a fourth.

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“We never intended to salvage the wreckage (of the entire ship),” he said. “We just want to dive on it and get some of the valuables . . . . What’s the ship’s bell from the Titanic worth? (And) none of the safety deposit boxes in the purser’s office were ever opened.”

And a British salvage engineer, John Pierce, said he will float the entire ship to the surface using inflated air bags.

“The Titanic is coming up,” he said last December. “It will be about 18 months before we can mount the operation technically, but there is nothing that can stop us now.”

Ballard said, however, that he opposes any salvage attempt.

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“One, because it’s dumb. The Titanic, in the first place, is already half gone. You’re not going to have a Queen Mary. You’re going to bring up half of a ship that’s going to immediately want to sink,” he said.

“The second thing, you’re not even going to get that up. Although the Titanic was brand new when it sank, it entered a world of corrosion,” and it is so weakened that trying to raise it will “simply bust it up into a bunch of small pieces.” But more important, he said, are historical considerations. Grave robbers destroyed priceless historical treasures when they plundered the Egyptian pyramids, the tombs of ancient pharaohs. “We have just found the first pyramid of the deep,” Ballard said.

And more important than the Titanic is what awaits explorers on the floor of the Mediterranean, most of which is more than 6,000 feet below the surface and some of which is 18,000 feet deep.

“For example, in the second Punic War, Rome vanquished the Carthaginians and on the way home lost 680 ships in a storm, and they sank in deep water. Now those pieces of history are down there waiting for us. The key question is, have we come to plunder or to appreciate?” Ballard observed.

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He said such treasures need not be raised to be appreciated because the new video technology now being used in undersea robots will provide everyone--the explorer and the home television viewer--with the same experience. Both are watching video screens, either in a living room or in a shipboard control room, and those screens present the same view as would a submarine’s porthole, sometimes better.

He said that the rapid advance of video technology will provide viewers with an ever more sophisticated “telepresence” that eventually could replace the “contrived” adventures of the movie theaters. A first step, he said, will be his plans to broadcast undersea images live via satellite.


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