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BALLARD
Victoria Arocho  /  AP File
Dr. Robert Ballard, the first explorer to discover the wreck of the RMS Titanic, points out the remote vehicle control device while inside the command and control center on the University of Rhode Island Narragansett, R.I. Bay Campus.
updated 6/3/2004 5:00:17 PM ET 2004-06-03T21:00:17

If a penny saved is a penny earned, on Monday you can earn yourself a cool $30,000.

That’s been the going price to plunge 12,000 feet to the North Atlantic seabed for a glimpse of the Titanic through the peephole of a cramped submersible.

But Monday at 9 p.m. ET, you can get a good look at the RMS Titanic on live TV. You won’t have to leave the house. And it won’t cost you a cent.

Maybe you’re feeling richer already!

Airing on the National Geographic Channel, “Return to Titanic” will take you on a scientific quest led by Robert Ballard, the marine explorer who found the sunken ruins of that luxury liner nearly 20 years ago and has since been championing her cause.

“This is a Super Bowl with 14 live cameras,” said Ballard, seeming almost as excited by the technology as by the expedition’s overriding purpose.

Live from the bottom of the sea
But the real reason for the 11-day mission, he hastened to add during a recent chat, calls for scientists to map the ship and measure its deterioration since he last visited with a film crew a year after its discovery on Sept. 1, 1985.

The 32-member expedition team is already hard at work gathering and analyzing video of the wreckage from aboard the Ronald H. Brown. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel is now positioned over the site some 325 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. “Return to Titanic” will originate from there, with ABC correspondent Jay Schadler on deck as host.

But the most thrilling part of the hour-long program is sure to be live transmissions from the bottom of the sea, courtesy of multiple cameras perusing the wreckage from a trio of robotic vehicles dubbed Hercules, Little Herc and Argus.

Dispatched to inspect the Titanic from various perspectives (including interior probes), these remote-controlled devices are tethered to the Ronald H. Brown by fiber-optic cable, with their high-definition video beamed to the watching world by satellite.

By comparing these newly captured images to film shot in 1986, “we can show you exactly what’s happened in 20 years,” Ballard said, “and then analyze the damage: Is that Mother Nature at work? Or is it the hand of man?”

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The ocean as a museum
But the condition of this famous wreck will convey a larger message.

“Our going back to the Titanic will get people to think not just about that ship, but about all human history in the ocean,” Ballard predicted. “I believe there’s more history in the deep sea than in all the museums of the world combined. But it’s a free-for-all, and what’s there is in peril.

“Can you imagine the Metropolitan Museum of Art being up for grabs, and anyone who enters it can take whatever they find?”

Since Ballard’s science-driven quests in 1985 and ’86, the Titanic, he said, has received only visitors bent on “making a movie, selling tours or plundering.” So far, salvage operations have cost the Titanic more than 6,000 of its artifacts.

Ballard has long pushed for an international agreement to protect the Titanic and other shipwrecks as permanent memorials, with each of them available to visitors in a convenient, noninvasive way — through what he calls “telepresence.”

Remembering a disaster
On Monday’s program, “I’m going to show you in the comfort of your home beautiful, high-quality live exploration of the Titanic without your having to go there,” he said. “I want to demonstrate that the Titanic is easily accessible, and has a much stronger statement to make, where it is: Something happened THERE, on that hallowed ground.”

What happened, of course, was the Titanic’s death blow the night of April 14, 1912. Its hull was ruptured by an iceberg, and more than 1,500 passengers and crew members — about two-thirds of those on board — perished when, less than three hours later, it sank to its final resting place.

Just a few days into its maiden voyage, the Titanic was a floating palace, the largest moving object ever made, guaranteed to be unsinkable.

Almost a century has passed, proving the Titanic truly unsinkable as a cautionary tale: human error on an epic scale, with tragedy to match. As much now as ever, it fascinates and haunts — a fact certainly not lost on director James Cameron or the millions who watched his film dramatizing the disaster.

“The Titanic, because of its status, serves as a forum for us to talk about even bigger things,” said Ballard, who intends to do just that with Monday’s telecast. “We’re a cultured society, and we don’t destroy our history — even if it’s under water.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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