June 2, 2008 — -- When oceanographer Bob Ballard uncovered the world's most famous shipwreck in 1985, he grabbed the globe's attention. But in reality the explorer's search for the Titanic was a cover-up for a top-secret mission for the U.S. government.
Ballard reveals he was hired to use his advanced robotic sub to check on the status of two nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion, that sank in the Atlantic in the 1960s.
"The Navy didn't want the Soviets to know they were looking for these subs," Ballard said on "Good Morning America" today.
The guise of searching for the Titanic's wreckage provided a perfect alibi for the intensified presence of U.S. ships on the Atlantic. Ballard was under strict instructions for the last two decades not to talk to anyone at the time about how he secretly sought out the two subs.
The Thresher went down in 1963 and the Scorpion sank in 1968. Both were nuclear subs and their locations had never really been mapped, Ballard said.
The Navy made a deal with Ballard. After his submarine search was concluded, it would fund an expedition to find the Titanic and now a National Geographic documentary called "Titanic: The Final Secret" follows the true story of the search and recovery of the 1912 shipwreck.
At the time, Ballard's latest invention was an underwater robot craft which was used to meticulously scanned the seabed of the North Atlantic and track the remnants of the two submarines.
Ballard's team found that the boats' nuclear fuel was intact. "The key was both nuclear reactors had turned off. They call it scrambling and control rods had gone down. So it was a good ending," said Ballard, who is National Geographic's explorer-in-residence.
He also found that the subs had a debris field that spread out for a mile, and used that lesson to help find the Titanic in the 12 days he had left on his Navy contract after tracking the Scorpion and the Thresher.
He realized it would be easier to find the Titanic's debris field than the actual ship.
"I'd only have 12 days to do what others had not done in 60," Ballard said. "That's all that was left. We had to do our mission for the Navy first and naval officers aboard would then approve [it] when we finished their mission and were now free to pursue the Titanic."
Ballard's team noticed the submarines' debris fields had patterns, which led the group to the wreckage. Using that newfound knowledge, Ballard was able to hone in on the Titanic.
"Because the Titanic when it broke up — just like the Scorpion and Thresher when they imploded — all this material, thousands of objects began falling to the ocean floor. Now, you would think they would just land in a clump. But they didn't," Ballard said. "When we saw the Thresher and Scorpion stretched out over a mile, we realized it was much easier to find that than the ships or the subs themselves."
Now Ballard is on to his next quest. The explorer is searching the Black Sea for wreckage and possibly a lost civilization.
"We're finding ships with their masts up, with rigging on them that are over 1,500 years old," he said. "We found other ships that are from the year 500 B.C."