Retired Navy Captain Don Walsh was the first person, along with France’s Jacques Piccard, to dive to the deepest depth in the global ocean, Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench. His 1960 expedition to a point nearly 7 miles below the sea surface in the bathyscape Trieste is considered one of the greatest ocean science and technology accomplishments of the 20th century. His legacy still offers lessons in how we should innovate today.
This week, I had the privilege of attending a tribute to Walsh at The Explorer’s Club in New York City. I joined a long list of ocean scientists and explorers who spoke to Walsh’s remarkable career, which has continued for six incredible decades following his Challenger Deep descent. I thanked him for inspiring the oceanographers who I led in the U.S. Navy and at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I also relayed remarks from a former chief of naval research who called him a champion for American ocean science, and I passed on praise by a former chief of naval operations for his service in the Navy’s Deep Submergence Program that helped the U.S. win the cold war against the Soviet Union.
I even had a little fun sharing a story from Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck of the RMS Titanic. Because Walsh pulled the strings in the Navy to get Ballard assigned to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which developed the undersea robotics that enabled the discovery of the storied shipwreck, I quipped that “If Bob Ballard might be known as the man who found Titanic, Captain Don Walsh is the man who found the man who found Titanic.”
The most interesting aspect of the tribute was that Victor Vescovo gave opening remarks. Vescovo was awarded the Explorers Medal in 2020 for diving the five deepest ocean trenches in the world’s oceans, including Challenger Deep, which he has descended an astonishing 18 times. Unlike Walsh’s government-funded dive, Vescovo’s expeditions were carried out by his company Caladan Oceanic, indicative of the increasing leadership of the private sector in advancing ocean understanding, conservation and sustainable use.
A few recent examples include a Silicon Valley startup that deployed its low-cost data buoys to improve forecasts for Hurricane Ian, a marine navigation corporation that used an ocean drone to conduct low-emission hydrographic surveys for wind farm operators in Europe, an environmental services contractor who supported Indonesia with adaptive, data-based fisheries management methods, another startup whose on-orbit edge computing firmware is being used to fight illegal fishing in Thailand, as well as a commercial weather company whose planned satellite constellation will monitor extreme precipitation and global sea-level rise at a resolution and revisit rate never before seen.
Yet, the Navy, NOAA, and other U.S. agencies who work in the ocean have yet to fully tap into the high-tech talent of disruptors like these. While unwieldy federal acquisition regulations and a “business as usual” mindset are the cause, there are ways we can quickly change the current course:
- Implement more agile acquisition. The lack of established programs of record for new and evolving capabilities is a burdensome barrier to early adoption. Following recent examples of NOAA and the Marine Corps the U.S. government can better enable its ocean program managers by working with Congress to expand the use of other transactional authorities (OTA) to accelerate turnkey technology transitions.
- Increase funding for existing public-private partnerships programs. The National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) is tailor-made for facilitating ocean-related partnerships between federal agencies, industry and academia to advance ocean science and technology, yet only $2.5 million has been appropriated for it this year. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions for ocean-related programs in the $1.7 trillion government spending bill signed into law by the president at the end of 2022. Boosting the NOPP budget two- or three-fold would not even amount to the rounding error in numbers this large.
- Invest in more innovative delivery of data and services. The market for Data-as-a-Service and Software-as-a-Service is exploding, and government organizations such as NOAA and the U.S. Air Force have only just begun to tap into it. Industry solutions like these can result in significant cost savings because they remove the need for acquisition of expense data collection platforms such as satellites, ships and aircraft, clearly justifying their wider application by the Navy, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Inspired by Vescovo’s record-setting deep dives, I joined him at a 2019 White House summit to expand public-private partnerships in ocean science and technology. There he declared that he was open for business to support our national objective to advance the oceans, so I signed an agreement between his company and NOAA in 2020, through which he mapped a million square kilometers of seafloor for NOAA. Since then, the playing field for the private sector in ocean science and stewardship has expanded dramatically. U.S. ocean agencies would be wise to get more in the game.
Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and former acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce, and oceanographer in the Navy.