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Explorer proposes undersea ‘space center’

Oceanographer Robert Ballard says an "Inner Space Center" could let students as well as scientists participate remotely in undersea exploration.Steven Senne / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Oceanographer Robert Ballard sees an opportunity for the University of Rhode Island to set up the undersea equivalent of a NASA-style space center.

All that's needed is for voters to approve a $14 million bond issue to build a 46,000-square-foot (4,274-square-meter) Marine Science Library and Undersea Exploration Center, Ballard said.

"What Houston is to outer space, the Inner Space Center will be to undersea exploration," said Ballard, the oceanographer who co-discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

"We're talking about electronic travel," said Ballard, who directs the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at URI, a new graduate program. "We're talking about allowing children to explore the ocean in real time from the comfort of their classrooms. This will create a wonderful synergy between scientists and students."

Virtual undersea tours
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently acquired a Navy ship that will be connected to the Inner Space Center, which will be capable of beaming video of underwater exploration to schools and other locales.

Scientists would transmit a high-definition TV signal from a remotely operated vehicle on the ocean floor to a command-and-control center at the University of Rhode Island.

"Rhode Island is the first state where all of its schools are on Internet 2, a high-bandwidth telecommunications network that makes the Internet look like a dirt road." Ballard said. "Students will be able to go on our ship, talk to the crew and watch discoveries as they happen. We're linking our future to exploration and education."

Rhode Island children will also be able to tour the world's national marine sanctuaries, thanks to a partnership between URI and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where Ballard runs the Institute for Exploration.

The proposed facility will have a viewing area to allow the public to observe these activities.

The Inner Space Center will be also be home to the new graduate program, which Ballard called a marriage of ancient history, art and oceanography. The first five students, who were admitted this fall, are studying human history that occurred in areas that are now underwater.

Scientists could also use the center to participate in expeditions without ever going to sea.

"Rhode Island and URI have long prided themselves on being in the forefront of ocean research," said Steven Carey, a professor of oceanography at URI. "We need the infrastructure to compete for federal research dollars and to make us competitive in ocean research."