Ecstatic deep-sea explorers plumbed the inner depths of the sunken luxury liner Titanic with an electronic "swimming eyeball" Wednesday, finding "beauty hidden in her aging lines."
And as the experimental robot probe was maneuvered by a joy stick like a wandering Pac-Man past shiny brass portholes and ornate marble columns in the ghostly wreck, scientists and Navy officers here heralded the new technology as a major advance for marine science and exploration.
But mixed with the excitement over the technology is the undeniable emotion sweeping this usually sleepy seaside village as the expedition leader radios back daily details of man's first return to the ship some 2 1/2 miles under the sea.
'You Have These Flashbacks'
"You can't help but feel it," Robert D. Ballard said in a ship-to-shore call.
"You have these flashbacks that Capt. Smith stood here, and (financier John Jacob) Astor was there, and that's where they loaded the women and children into the boats. You don't hear them, you just feel them," Ballard said. "You remember the staircase scene with people going up and down the staircase, and you remember the band playing."
It has been 74 years since the band last played to calm panicking passengers before the world's largest and most luxurious ship slipped through the icy North Atlantic and settled in darkness 12,500 feet below. With too few lifeboats, more than 1,500 people died and only 703 survived.
In their fourth dive of the week Wednesday, the scientists repeatedly landed their three-man mini-submarine Alvin on the decks and bridge and sent the probe, called Jason Jr., peering into first-class rooms and a cavernous gymnasium.
In a 30-minute ship-to-shore press conference Wednesday night, Ballard said he and two other scientists first looked at the wheelhouse, where only a "polished and shiny" brass wheel still stands.
They then maneuvered the Jason Jr., which he called "JJ," up to a "big beautiful brass light" on a fallen forward mast, and then "almost into the crow's nest where we could see the radio hookup to the bridge."
View From Crow's Nest
It was from the crow's nest that two sailors first sounded the alarm warning of a giant iceberg looming dead ahead in the still waters just before midnight on April 14, 1912. The 882-foot-long ship, steaming nearly full speed despite repeated radio warnings of ice, sliced a 300-foot-long gash in her double-bottomed starboard hull as she grazed the giant berg. The ship sank in 2 1/2 hours.
Ballard said the wreck appeared sheared "in a clean cut" between the second and third of the four fallen smokestacks. Decks had collapsed inside, and huge "rusticles, like icicles of rust" hang from the ceilings of posh officers quarters and first-class staterooms, he said.
"The whole ship is covered with these rusticles," he said.
Ballard said the ship's bow is buried in about 40 feet of mud and sediment, covering the hull nearly up to the anchors and hiding most of the gash made by the iceberg.
Organisms Decorate Ship
Except for some beams, most of the ornamental wood balustrades and planking have been eaten by undersea organisms, Ballard said. Their empty tube-like exoskeletons "decorate the ship, sort of like tinsel," he said.
"The only disappointment is the absence of all the beautiful woodwork," he said. "The animals have had quite a feast on the woodwork. . . . It does not look great for ships of greater age."
But Ballard said the fabled liner still shows "beauty hidden in her aging lines."
"The Titanic remains a ship of windows and portholes," he said. "I would say most of the vast majority of its windows and portholes are intact. Many times JJ would go up and see himself reflect back in the glass. . . . They look brand new."
Deceptively Easy to Run
While the technology of Jason Jr., the lawnmower-sized, remote-controlled, propeller-driven probe is complex, running it appears deceptively simple.
An operator in a nearby three-man mini-submarine uses the joy stick from a console on his lap and watches a video monitor, much like a video arcade game, to guide the royal blue probe through the giant ship's pitch-black interiors.
"It's a lot harder than Pac-Man," said Dr. Dana R. Yoerger, a member of the institution team that developed the probe last winter. "Imagine playing Pac-Man where you can only see through Pac-Man's eyes. You can't see the maze. You can't see the goblins. You can only see what's ahead of you. . . . The problems are formidable."
Tested for the first time on this trip, the prototype Jason Jr. has a titanium hull and is 20 inches high, 27 inches wide and 28 inches long. Compact electric motors power four propellers, enabling it to "swim" in any direction.
Has Delicate Sensors
The probe is neutrally buoyant and uses three powerful flood lamps and a strobe light to shoot high-resolution color video and still pictures from rotating cameras. It is tethered to the 25-foot-long Alvin by a 200-foot half-inch-thick cable and operated through a small computer system. Sensors measure both heading and pressure.
"It sounds simple, but the pressure sensor can resolve one inch of depth at the bottom of the ocean," Yoerger said.
He said ambient pressure at the Titanic is about 5,800 pounds per square inch, or nearly 400 times atmospheric pressure at sea level.
Early in the 9-hour dive Wednesday, the probe's tether got tangled on a jagged metal edge below the bridge. But the operator quickly pinpointed the problem with the probe's video eye and "JJ just rose up, pulled a little to the right, and went right back to work."
Ballard said he is "relieved" that the scientists have not found any human remains. "We have covered so much of the ship now that it looks less and less likely," he said.
Will Visit Stern Area
But he said human remains still may exist in the ship's stern because the vessel sank bow down and passengers ran aft. He said the scientists will visit the stern area, which sits broken in a debris field some 600-800 meters south of the forward section, later this week.
He said the explorers may also try to send the probe into two forward holds where vintage autos were stored. "There are some promising places we haven't gone yet," he said.
"Clearly it was the best dive we've had in the whole series," Ballard said. Eight more dives are scheduled.
With Ballard Wednesday were Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists Martin Bowen, who piloted the Jason Jr., and Will Sellars, who operated the mini-submarine. Expedition photographs and videotapes are to be released to the news media late Friday.
A joint U.S.-French expedition led by Ballard used unmanned submersibles to first find the wreck about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland last September.
Navy Backs Expedition
The Navy's Office of Naval Research is backing the $20,000-a-day, three-week return visit as part of a $2.8-million, five-year contract with the institution to develop the Argo/Jason system to map, research and explore the ocean bottom.
It is "a quantum leap in deep-dive technology," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Neuhart, a spokesman for the deep-sea exploration.
"With this capability, we'll be able to both explore and perform experiments at depths and locations unheard of before," said Dr. John Steele, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit scientific institute coordinating the historic expedition.
By next year, scientists and engineers here will redesign a larger, 1,000-pound Jason probe with a mechanical arm and other devices. It will operate from another unmanned probe called the Argo, enabling it to dive to 20,000 feet. The manned sub Alvin can only dive to about 13,000 feet.
"The real leap forward is still ahead, when we put it all together," Steele said.
Could Check Heated Vents
He said the redesigned probe will be able to collect samples from super-heated vents in the earth's crust deep under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Scientists want to map and study how the 300-degree Centigrade temperatures at the vents affect forces on geological plates, ocean chemistry and unknown biological forms.
"The most spectacular mountain ranges, the deepest canyons and the most bizarre terrain on earth is found under water," Yoerger said.
For the Navy, Neuhart said, the technology offers the capability to "search and identify objects on the ocean floor from large ships and planes, to small objects like spent ordnance and missile boosters."
Neuhart said the probe's "ability to both penetrate and photograph restricted areas provides us with a visual imaging capability that we have not had to this point."
Has Missile Applications
Items of military interest include the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher, which sank in the Atlantic in 1963, a Soviet submarine that exploded and sank between Hawaii and Midway in 1968, and the U.S. nuclear submarine Scorpion, which sank off the Azores in 1968.
Deep-sea probes are also essential for anti-submarine warfare and the navigation of submarine-launched missiles. The Navy also wants the probes to help explore the feasibility of basing missiles on the ocean bottom.
Various entrepreneurs and treasure hunters have talked of plans to salvage the 45,000-ton Titanic, or parts of it, or even to take sightseers down in private submarines.
But Ballard said the decay appears so serious that the ship is "totally unsalvageable. There's just no way to raise it."
Select Group of Submarines
Only two other submarines, the U.S. Navy's Sea Cliff and the French government's Nautile, are known to operate at the Titanic's depth. Yoerger said privately owned remote-operated vehicles can only dive to 7,500 feet.
"To try to move a large fragile structure like that would be virtually impossible without severely damaging the ship," he said. "Someone could make a serious attempt. I can't say they'd succeed or how much it would cost."
Yoerger said the future of ocean research lies in unmanned probes like Jason Jr. But the adventure lies elsewhere.
"Remote operated vehicles give invaluable data," he said wistfully. "But landing on the deck of the Titanic, well, that's something else again."