Thursday, September 25, 2008

National Geographic: "Titanic: The Final Secret": a Cold War legacy

On Sunday, Sept. 21, the National Geographic Channel presented an impressive one-hour documentary “Titanic: The Final Secret”. The film traced the exploration work of diver and oceanographer Robert Ballard in the 1980s. Two other projects, highly classified and sponsored by the Navy, helped facilitate his discovery of the Titanic in 1985. The National Geographic link is here.

The first project involved the sinking of the submarine USS Thresher in April 1963, somewhere east of the Canadian Maritimes. This occurred just a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the government was very concerned about the loss of the nuclear reactor. The submarine apparently failed because of a plumbing leak, that became explosive inside the sub, leading to its sinking and implosion.

Then he visited the site of the sinking of the USS Scorpion in 1968, somewhat off the coast of North Africa. By then, the Navy had frequently launched submarines, nuclear powered and sometimes armed with nuclear warheads, to spy on the Soviets undersea with a process called triangulation. The Navy feared that the Scorpion had been sunk by a Soviet torpedo, but Ballard found no evidence of Soviet “body parts.” One theory is that a leak started in the propeller system.

The project was highly classified at the time of Ballard’s reconnaissance, because the Reagan administration was cranking up its final push to destabilize the Soviet Union, which would eventually lead to its collapse in 1991. The Navy was finding that it was even more difficult to maintain submarines safely when deployed often than it had thought.

Upon completing the second reconnaissance, Ballard headed for the Titanic site. Again, he would use new techniques (the Argo) to detect a trail of debris rather than sonar.

The film has a lot of black-and-white footage from crowded, intimate submarine life in the 1960s.

In 1993, I boarded the USS Sunfish (commissioned in 1963, now decommissioned), docked in Norfolk VA and open to the public, while I did my own research on the arguments used to derail Bill Clinton’s attempt to lift the military ban on gays. I did meet the crew, ate some of their chocolate cake a la mode (submariners tend to gain weight), and indeed found the conditions very crowded. I saw the door to the nuclear engine room, but the public was not allowed near the reactor itself. There was an odd prohibition on wearing political buttons on board. Remember that a couple weeks before, Senators Warner and Nunn had done the televised low crawl on the USS Hammerhead.

Update: July 20, 2012

The National Geographic Society shows a 10 minute film at its Titanic show with Mr. Ballard, called "Titanic, The Moment".  Ballard explains how he did reconnaissance on Soviet submarines which had to be kept classified, and also how his craft was covered with titanium to make it go deeper.  When they found the site, they made light of it and then felt sorry for doing so.

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