For Robert Ballard, integrating the next generation into STEM fields is about more than promoting the life of an explorer and a scientist like himself, more than preparing for the future.

It’s fulfilling a debt of gratitude.

“When I was a kid, I wrote a letter, like a ‘Dear Santa Claus’ letter, to a scientist. I’m sure the words were misspelled. And I said, I want to be an oceanographer,” the discoverer of the wreck of the RMS Titanic said on Tuesday in Atchison.

“And instead of throwing my letter in the trash, he sent me an application for a scholarship I got that changed my life. I have a moral obligation to do the same for all the kids today.”

It is this mission most of all that drives him now, Ballard said, in his ongoing quest for the lost Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft, flown by Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in July 1937 before they vanished over the Pacific Ocean.

Ballard is partnering with National Geographic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Navy to attempt to solve the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance, or at least find some sign of where her aircraft went down.

An initial survey of the area around Nikumaroro Island, in the Phoenix archipelago of the Republic of Kiribati, has not produced any recovered Earhart artifacts, although search teams did find a possible camp site and a skull, which may belong to a woman, Ballard said. Meanwhile, search efforts for signs of Earhart’s plane will continue around Howland Island, where teams had expected Earhart and Noonan to land on July 2, 1937.

Principal Matt Renk of Atchison High School, who hosted Ballard at an event organized by the office of Ballard’s longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, said Ballard’s visit proved to be an opportunity for kids to check in to the sciences and follow Ballard’s example. Ballard was accompanied by retired Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, U.S. Navy, deputy administrator of NOAA.

“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to have that offer out there,” Renk said. “If you’re willing to do the work and you’re willing to do the mental pushups, you could be out there too. It’s a great message.”

After obtaining his scholarship, Ballard, a Wichita native, completed a quadruple major in physics, mathematics, geology and chemistry, before going on to earn his PhD.

He briefly served in the U.S. Army before transferring to the U.S. Navy, where his work as an oceanographer led to his selection for an operation in 1985 to find the wreckage of U.S. nuclear submarines; as Ballard told the crowd at AHS on Tuesday, he really wasn’t expected to find Titanic, and the Navy was unhappy with him when he did, because of the publicity it generated toward a secret mission.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Ballard’s discovery led to a career of finding lost treasures and geologic wonders on the sea floor that made him an international celebrity, and he hopes now to inspire students in Atchison and around the world.

“When I came home from the Titanic, there were sixteen thousand Bob Ballard letters. Written to this Bob Ballard,” he said. “And I just feel it’s a moral obligation to pay back, particularly at this point in my life.

So I was here recruiting. I’m here to sign up kids. And I want to tell them that it’s really exciting what I do. And they want to share in that excitement? They gotta do their homework.”

Ballard’s Corps of Exploration is offering opportunities for students to apply and contribute to his mission, including potential selection for a tour of duty aboard E/V Nautilus, his ocean-exploring ship currently deployed to the Pacific for the search. For more information, visit https://nautiluslive.org/education

Marcus Clem can be reached

via marcus.clem@atchisonglobenow.com

or @AdAstraGorilla on Twitter.

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