How the Titanic Was Discovered During a Secret Cold War Navy Mission

Oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 as part of a US Navy investigation into two damaged Cold War nuclear submarines but the operation was kept secret for years, leading many to believe its discovery was a purely scientific endeavor.

The Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean in April 1912 after ramming an iceberg four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. More than 1,500 of the 2,240 on board died and the wreck lay off Canada’s eastern province of Newfoundland for decades.

Ballard, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, met with Navy officials in the early ‘80s to request funding for robotic submersible technology he needed to find the Titanic. The Navy was interested in the technology, but mainly because they wanted to explore the wreckage of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Both submarines had met with tragic consequences and the Titanic was believed to be resting between the two Navy wrecks.

"The Navy never expected me to find the Titanic, and so when that happened, they got really nervous because of the publicity," Ballard told National Geographic. "But people were so focused on the legend of the Titanic they never connected the dots."

The Titanic
The Titanic rests about 370 miles off the east coast of Canada’s Newfoundland

How the Titanic Was Discovered During a Secret Cold War Navy Mission

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Oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 as part of a US Navy investigation into two damaged Cold War nuclear submarines but the operation was kept secret for years, leading many to believe its discovery was a purely scientific endeavor.

The Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean in April 1912 after ramming an iceberg four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. More than 1,500 of the 2,240 on board died and the wreck lay off Canada’s eastern province of Newfoundland for decades.

Ballard, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, met with Navy officials in the early ‘80s to request funding for robotic submersible technology he needed to find the Titanic. The Navy was interested in the technology, but mainly because they wanted to explore the wreckage of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Both submarines had met with tragic consequences and the Titanic was believed to be resting between the two Navy wrecks.

"The Navy never expected me to find the Titanic, and so when that happened, they got really nervous because of the publicity," Ballard told National Geographic. "But people were so focused on the legend of the Titanic they never connected the dots."

The Titanic
The Titanic rests about 370 miles off the east coast of Canada’s Newfoundland

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The Thresher

The state-of-the-art Thresher was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, a specialized ‘hunter-killer’ launched at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine in July 1960. Exactly what happened to the sub is still a mystery with competing theories and conspiracy theories.

The Thresher went through sea trials in 1961. “Her pressure hull, constructed of HY-80 steel, would enable her to dive to some 1,300 feet - unprecedented for a US submarine,” according to the US Naval Institute

There was some concern about her instrumentation and, while in port in San Juan, the crew reported problems with her diesel generator and had trouble restarting her nuclear reactor - but the problems didn’t cause undue concern as the Thresher was undergoing sea trials and adjustments were being made. Less than two years later, however, the Thresher and the 129 men aboard unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor in April 1963 where they lay for decades, about 300 miles off the coast of New England.

Navy documents declassified in 2021 reveal that a search team sent to locate the Thresher thought some of the sub crew may have survived for 24 hours after the vessel was thought to have imploded.

The US was investigating nuclear subs when the Titanic was discovered
The Thresher, launched July 9, 1960 at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Maine


The loss of four subs in one year

The Scorpion sank with 99 men aboard in May 1968, the second nuclear submarine lost to the US Navy and one of the four mysterious submarine disappearances that same year. The other submarines included Israel’s INS Dakar, France’s Minerve, and the Soviet sub K-129.

Both the Thresher and Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic Ocean at between 10,000 and 15,000 feet and the US Navy had quite a few questions about the cause of their demise (were they shot down?) and the fate of the nuclear reactors that powered the submarines.

Ballard determined that there was no environmental impact and that Thresher probably met its demise after a piping failure led to a nuclear power collapse. The fate of the Scorpion was less clear-cut. Over the years, speculation has ranged from a defective torpedo to a Soviet attack.

The US was investigating nuclear subs when the Titanic was discovered
The Scorpion: Her wreck was found 400 miles southwest of the Azores

The discovery of the Titanic

Ballard found the Titanic while searching for the sunken submarines. He had just 12 days left in his mission when he followed a debris trail laid out according to the physics of the currents, National Geography reports.

Ballard has since used the technique to find other sunken ships and treasures, including his expeditions to the Black Sea. 

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