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Photo: Emory Kristof, National Geographic
Photo: Emory Kristof, National Geographic

Untold No Longer: The Story of The Titanic You’ve Never Heard

We all think we know the story of the Titanic. The world’s largest, most luxurious ocean liner sank in 1912 – a triumph of engineering transformed into unspeakable tragedy.

We now know exactly where she lies, thousands of feet below the surface off the coast of Newfoundland, but the Titanic’s location remained a mystery for 70 years. Then, her story became entwined with a modern narrative of Cold War technology, the tragedy of lost nuclear submarines and a secret mission. This is the haunting, fascinating tale at the heart of the National Geographic Museum’s new exhibit, Titanic: The Untold Story, open daily through early January.

National Geographic Explorer Robert Ballard joined the Army during the Vietnam War, but went to graduate school and got a job building submarines. One December night in 1966, he got a knock at the door from a Naval officer.

“He handed me an envelope and said, ‘You’re not in the Army anymore, you’re in the Navy,’” Ballard told On Tap in a recent interview. “That began a long career of living two different lives.”

To the public, he was a well-known oceanographer, writing articles and researching ocean geology and hydrothermal vents. But Ballard kept working with the Navy and requested funding to develop remotely operated submersibles. The Navy agreed, and assigned Ballard a mission to locate, photograph and study the final resting place of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that sank in 1968. He was to locate the submarine’s nuclear reactor and nuclear weapons, and to get evidence that would help explain her loss.

There was a problem: it was the height of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, and it was imperative that Ballard’s mission avoid drawing the attention of Soviet intelligence. What better cover story for the mission than a search for the lost wreck of the Titanic?

The Navy added research on one more submarine wreck to Ballard’s plate: the USS Thresher, a nuclear submarine that sank five years before the Scorpion. The scientist was to study both the Scorpion and the Thresher to determine if the nuclear material from both subs was impacting the environment.

Though Ballard already knew what led to the Thresher’s demise, questions about the nuclear material remained. The reason the Scorpion sank, however, was inconclusive. Still, Ballard discovered her location using a phenomenon known as the sound channel.

“There’s a special layer about 1,000 meters down where all sound is ducted. If you listen in the sound channel, you can hear noises much, much further away. And we’re pretty sure that whales figured this out a long, long time ago, and that they use it for long distance communication.”

During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy set up listening arrays in multiple parts of the ocean to detect Soviet activity and recorded whatever sounds they picked up. Ballard said the Navy used these recordings to roughly determine the location of the Scorpion.

“We thought, ‘I wonder if we heard her die?’”

Sure enough, they heard the boom as she imploded in the deep. His towed camera system, the Argo, dove to depths of 9,800 feet to find and document the remains of the Scorpion. He had figured out that ocean currents created a debris trail as the Scorpion sank and followed the trail to the wreck.

He then realized he could use the same strategy to find the Titanic. With the allotted time for his mission nearly up, he found the Titanic at the very edge of the search area. He was awed by what he saw.

“I didn’t expect to be affected by this whole thing,” he said. “I’m a scientist and a naval officer, clinically doing things. But it spoke. I was bowled over by the impact of being there.”

Pairs of shoes litter the ocean floor around the wreck, marking where people who died and sank to the bottom once rested. Because leather shoes are treated with tannic acid, sea life won’t eat them and they remain preserved.

“It’s a tombstone. Nothing is small down there. Everything’s gigantic in size, but then there are these little pairs of shoes. It draws your attention away from the massiveness and the grandeur.”
Ballard noticed them every time he went back.

“Every time I made a return trip, I always knew, I saw those shoes and I said, ‘That was somebody.’”

He recalled returning to the Titanic in 2004 with new vehicles.

“I’m sitting in my command center with a beautiful high-definition camera and a remote control robot, and I’m just staying there. For days, I wandered the Titanic. And I got closure.”

Ballard’s secret mission was quietly declassified just a few years ago. Kathryn Keane, vice president of public experiences for the National Geographic Museum, was amazed to learn that the search for the Titanic was the cover story for Ballard’s mission. National Geographic staff were even on board with Ballard during his mission, and still no one knew.

“I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know that, and I work here,’” Keane said. “If I don’t know this story, most of the public doesn’t know, either.’”

The new exhibit skillfully blends science, history and storytelling. You begin your visit awed by the technology and the mission’s secret backstory, and end by reading the personal stories of Titanic passengers and viewing amazing recreations of the Titanic’s rooms made for James Cameron’s 1998 film Titanic, which remains one of the most successful films ever made.

It’s a moving experience. Keane noted that this is the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Scorpion, and the losses of both submarines – the Scorpion and the Thresher – and the “unsinkable ship” have far-reaching effects.

“The layers of tragedy surrounding this story impact generations of people,” she said of the Titanic.

It’s certainly difficult to picture the loved ones of these lost crews and ship passengers waiting in vain for good news without feeling their pain. The last artifact in the exhibit is a letter from President Ronald Reagan, designating the wreck of the Titanic as a memorial site.

And though undeniably one of the most pivotal moments of his career, Ballard isn’t interested in being known solely as the discoverer of the Titanic.

“My mother called me after we found the Titanic and said, ‘It’s too bad you found that rusty old ship.’ She understood hydrothermal vents and the science I was doing, and she said, ‘Now they’re only going to remember you for that.’”

But as Titanic: The Untold Story shows, Ballard’s contributions to ocean exploration are far greater than a single mission in 1985, and the story of these three lost vessels is greater than the sum of its parts. Keane said she hopes the exhibit inspires a generation of new explorers.

“One of the things we love to do here at the museum is invite families and get young people excited about exploration and science,” she said. “The story of the Titanic is why they’ve come, but if they come out of it interested in science, exploration, even in serving their country, that would be a victory for us because that’s what we do here.”

Titanic: The Untold Story runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through January 6, 2019 at the National Geographic Museum. Tickets are $15. And don’t miss the Taste of the Titanic event on Wednesday, July 25 at 7 p.m. to experience the actual menus aboard the ship, from first-class cuisine to third-class nosh. Learn more at http://tasteoftitanic.com/

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org/dc

 

Taste of Titanic (600px)

 

Photo: Rebecca Hale
Photo: Rebecca Hale

Science, Faith, Virtual Reality and Archaeology meet at National Geographic Museum’s The Tomb of Christ

Virtual reality headsets let you explore the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Three dimensional videos take you through the streets of Jerusalem. All of this is an integral part of the National Geographic Museum’s Tomb of Christ exhibit.

With rooms recreated after the church, and panels packed with text and pictures, this exhibit teaches a lot. People in, or traveling to, DC before January 2019 should not miss this chance to meet a new place of mystery, and one that’s fully relevant to today’s divided world.

The exhibit highlights conservation and renovation done by scientists from the National Technical University of Athens on the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Edicule is the site within the site — a small shrine built over what’s remembered as the tomb of Jesus Christ, under the impressive dome of a large church in the Ottoman Baroque style.

The place of the Holy Sepulchre has a storied history. Over the past 2,000 years, it’s been a limestone quarry, a Jewish burial ground, a Roman temple to Venus, and multiple Christian churches—destroyed over the years by invaders and natural disasters, only to end up rebuilt. The most recent construction of the church and Edicule occurred in 1808, but the intervening 200 years have weighed heavily on the holy site.

This is where the scientists come in. Professor Antonia Moropoulou and her team have a reputation for saving historic monuments, including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Acropolis in Athens. Work on the Edicule, however, comes with a twist. The site is governed by the “Status Quo:” an 1852 agreement established by the Turkish sultan, when Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule, that any changes to the Edicule had to be agreed upon by unanimous decision of the six Christian orders that share the church—Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.

Unanimous agreement isn’t easy. The six orders recognized all the way back in 1959 that the Edicule needed restoration. Mosaics were blackened by candle smoke and the walls were weak. Church leaders agreed to renovate on two conditions: the work would not interfere with pilgrims praying at the shrine, and the project would be completed between two Easter celebrations.

Then they waited for a proposal.

And kept waiting.

More than 50 years later, in 2015, church leaders finally received an offer from Moropoulou and her team.

The project used the best in available technology, including ground-penetrating radar, radiometry and robotics. Working by night, the team pulled off a trifecta: restoring the shrine’s original brilliance, reinforcing the structural integrity of the Edicule and contributing to archaeological understanding.

For the first time in centuries—and caught on camera by the National Geographic—researchers removed the stone slab covering Jesus’ tomb. The discovery of Byzantine material confirmed for archaeologists that this same site has been remembered as the location of Jesus’ tomb at least since the fourth century. Other archaeological evidence potentially dates this worship site to the first century.

The exhibit isn’t just about the restoration work, it’s literally a consequence of it. Part of the project involved gathering billions of recorded data points through millimeter-accurate LIDAR scans. With these data researchers created a complete 3D record of the site. This same LIDAR technology that allowed scientists to restore the site is what now allows museum visitors to tour the site through virtual reality.

The exhibit deals openly and respectfully with potentially controversial material—the biggest elephant not in the room. It clearly explains what is known through science, history and archaeological evidence. It doesn’t try to confirm or criticize religious beliefs that might be associated with the site.

“The religious significance of what lies hidden beneath the polished limestone and marble slabs of the church’s Edicule remains a matter of personal faith,” one panel suggests. “But people of all faiths can appreciate the beauty and long history of this storied building.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre—home to six different Christian orders, visited every year by believers and nonbelievers of every kind—serves as a microcosm of the whole city of Jerusalem. The city is also home to important Jewish and Muslim sites, including the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

For this reason, the National Geographic Museum is also showing a film about Jerusalem the city. Although it’s separate from the Tomb of Christ exhibit (and requires a second ticket), this film provides important context to the experience. The video profiles three articulate teenage women—Jewish, Muslim and Christian. These women introduce viewers to their lives, with an emphasis on their similarities—especially their shared love of their families and city.

The exhibit can be viewed in an hour. The film lasts 40 minutes. And although the exhibit and film cost money (ticket information available at here), the museum also boasts free offerings.

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org/dc