View of the bow of the RMS Titanic photographed in June 2004 by the ROV Hercules during an expedition returning to the shipwreck of the Titanic. Courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island (NOAA/IFE/URI).

The RMS Titanic, a British luxury passenger liner, embarked on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City on April 10, 1912. It was the largest and most luxurious ship afloat at the time. The Titanic had a double-bottomed hull divided into 16 watertight compartments.

Despite being considered unsinkable, the Titanic tragically struck an iceberg southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, on April 14. This caused five compartments to rupture, leading to the ship’s sinking. More than 1,500 of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board lost their lives in the disaster. The wreckage of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 at a depth of 13,000 feet.

The discovery of the Titanic was not a straightforward mission. It was, in fact, the result of a top-secret U.S. Navy investigation. The ship was found on September 1, 1985, but the full story behind its discovery was only revealed years later.

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.

The Secret Navy Mission

In 1982, Robert Ballard, an accomplished oceanographer, approached the U.S. Navy to request funding for the development of robotic submersible technology. The Navy agreed to fund the technology, but not for the purpose of finding the Titanic. Instead, they wanted Ballard to investigate the wreckage of two sunken nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion.

The Thresher and Scorpion had sunk in the North Atlantic Ocean at depths of between 3,000 and 4,600 meters. The military was interested in the fate of the nuclear reactors that powered the ships. This knowledge was to help determine the environmental safety of disposing of additional nuclear materials in the oceans.

USS Thresher & USS Scorpion

The USS Thresher was lost while undergoing deep-diving tests 220 miles east of Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1963. It was the fastest and quietest submarine in the world at that time, equipped with a new sonar system and the U.S. Navy’s newest anti-submarine missile, the SUBROC. A Navy investigation concluded that a piping failure caused Thresher‘s nuclear reactor to shut down during sea trials. The powerless submarine then sank toward the ocean bottom and was crushed by enormous undersea pressure. All 129 crew members on board were killed.

Declassified Navy documents from 2021 suggest that a search team dispatched to locate the Thresher believed that some of the submarine’s crew might have survived for up to 24 hours after the vessel was presumed to have imploded.

USS Thresher (SSN-593) underway, 30 April 1961. From the collections of the Naval Historical Center. U.S. Navy photo by J.L. Snell.

The USS Scorpion was lost with all hands-on May 22, 1968. The Scorpion was lost with all 99 crew members on board. The submarine failed to arrive in Norfolk as scheduled, and after a search, it was officially declared lost. Despite extensive investigations, no definitive cause for the Scorpion‘s loss has ever been determined. The loss of the Scorpion remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Cold War.

The USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Photographed on 22 August 1960, off New London, Connecticut. A “GUPPY” type submarine is faintly visible in the distance, just beyond the forward tip of Scorpion’s “sail”. From the collections of the Naval Historical Center. U.S. Navy photo.

The Discovery of the Titanic

Ballard was given permission to search for the Titanic only if he finished his primary mission early. The Titanic was located somewhere between the two downed submarines. However, the Navy doubted he would have enough time to find anything.

During his investigation of the sunken submarines, Ballard noticed something about how currents affect debris. Heavier items sink faster, leaving a trail of waste. This observation led to a breakthrough. Ballard realized that if he could find the Titanic’s line of debris, he could find the vessel.

With just 12 days left in his mission, Ballard followed a debris trail laid out according to the physics of the currents. This led him to the discovery of the Titanic. This technique has since been used by Ballard to find other sunken ships and treasures, including his expeditions to the Black Sea.

The ship’s bell, recovered from the wreck of the RMS Titanic.


The discovery of the Titanic was a significant achievement in oceanography. However, the story behind its discovery reveals a fascinating intersection of science, technology, and military strategy during the Cold War. The mission not only led to the discovery of the Titanic but also advanced our understanding of deep-sea exploration and the effects of nuclear materials on the ocean environment.


Titanic Historical Society

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.