US Navy names future ship for URI alumnus, professor Robert Ballard

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 23, 2023 – The U.S. Navy has announced that a future Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship will be named in honor of University of Rhode Island alumnus and Professor of Oceanography Robert Ballard.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced recently that the ship will be named USNS Robert Ballard (T-AGS 67).

Ballard, a retired U.S. Navy commander and former director of the Center for Ocean Exploration at URI, is widely known as a discoverer of the final resting place of the R.M.S. Titanic. He is the president and founder of Ocean Exploration Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of the global ocean, which is an active partner with URI. The name selection follows the tradition of naming survey ships after explorers, oceanographers and distinguished marine surveyors. 

“Dr. Ballard’s career, explorations, research and focus on teaching the next generation of oceanographers is remarkable, and I am pleased to name T-AGS 67 in his honor,” Del Toro said. “One of my enduring priorities is building a culture of warfighting excellence, and that includes lifelong learning amongst DoN personnel. The name Robert Ballard displayed across the stern of this ship will serve as an inspiration to all who see it while highlighting the results of commitment to education and exploration.”

“I am humbled to have the U.S. Navy’s oceanographic ship USNS Robert Ballard (T-AGS 67) as a namesake. As a 17-year-old, in 1959, I went on my very first oceanographic cruise, and very early in my oceanographic career, the U.S. Navy played a central role and continues to do so to this day,” Ballard said. “It is indeed an honor to know that the USNS Robert Ballard will continue to explore the oceans long after I am gone.”

Del Toro has designated Barbara Earle Ballard, Ballard’s spouse and president of Odyssey Enterprises, as the ship’s sponsor.

“Dr. Ballard’s career has served as an inspiration for generations of students, researchers, and curious minds, across the world, who have delighted in his enthusiasm and his passion for discovering some of the most fascinating parts of our vast oceans,” URI President Marc Parlange said. “This is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest explorers of our time and I am so pleased to see that the accomplishments of a fantastic colleague, mentor, and pioneer at URI will endure for years to come.”

Paula Bontempi, dean of URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, congratulated Ballard for this latest honor. 

“As a student and later as a faculty member at the Graduate School of Oceanography, Robert Ballard has cemented URI’s reputation as an international hub for deep sea exploration, marine science and ocean education,” Bontempi said. “Honoring Dr. Ballard’s legacy by name on a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship will inspire those on board to continue to reveal the secrets held within Earth’s ocean as he has throughout his remarkable career.”

After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1965, Ballard earned an Army Reserve commission, ultimately requesting and transferring to the Navy when called to active service in 1967. Assigned to the Office of Naval Research as a liaison officer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Ballard worked extensively with deep-submergence vehicle Alvin (DSV-2).

After transitioning to the Naval Reserve in 1970, he completed a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Rhode Island. He continued to work at Woods Hole, where he was part of a team that discovered deep-sea thermal vents near the Galapagos Rift.

Best known for his 1985 discovery of R.M.S. Titanic at a depth of 12,000 feet, Ballard also led other shipwreck discoveries, including USS Yorktown (CV-5), USS Quincy (CA-39) and President John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. Ballard retired from the Navy in 1995. In 1989, he founded the distance learning program the JASON Project, which reached 12 million schoolchildren; and the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut, and is also the founder and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust.  

The Navy’s Military Sealift Command’s Special Mission program supports worldwide oceanographic programs with ships that perform acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys. 

Survey ships, like the future USNS Robert Ballard, use multi-beam, wide-angle precision sonar systems and have charted three-fourths of the world’s coastlines, making it easier for navigators to find their way along both well-traveled and not-so-familiar shipping routes.