31 years ago: An adventure to the bottom of the sea | Guest View

By Michael Jones | Jun 08, 2017
Courtesy of: Michael Jones Michael Jones is interviewed by KOMO-TV.

Most people know our town for its festivals: The Taste of Edmonds and the Edmonds Art Festival come to mind, but on May 19, 1986, I took students from across the country on a live, interactive underwater television exploration of our shipwrecks just north of the ferry dock.

It was called Project Undersea Uplink.

This live, one-hour broadcast was beamed from a research vessel anchored over the shipwreck, across Puget Sound to KOMO-TV, where it was uplinked to a satellite and picked up by schools from coast to coast.

It was a first. The electronic field trip was born. As a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, said: “My students took a field trip to the bottom of the ocean, and they didn’t even get their feet wet!”

I taught science in the Shoreline School District, but my roots were firmly planted in the science classrooms of Edmonds High School, where I graduated in 1964. Inspired by my biology teacher John Cooke, I went on to become a science teacher myself.

In 1985, I was nominated and was a state finalist in the NASA Teacher in Space Project, vying for the seat aboard the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle. But my training and exposure to NASA telecommunications technologies planted the idea in my head of shared, interactive exploration of places many students would never get to experience.

The idea of an electronic field trip came to me at Brackett’s Landing in November 1985. We were testing an underwater video system that would allow students aboard an oceanographic ship to interact with divers working on the bottom, ask questions and receive a few in return.

Instead of studying comets and planets in outer space, courtesy of NASA, my distant students would observe a galaxy of sea stars floating in inner space.

Funding for the show came from another of my brainstorms. The cost to bring this new kind of teaching tool to students was an astronomical $50,000. You could say the money came from space.

I wanted to see the famous Halley’s Comet, due to loop around the sun in February 1986. But major obstacles would make this impossible from Seattle.

I got the idea to charter a jet airliner, fill it with teachers, make it a teacher-training day, and get Shoreline School district to pay for it. The district agreed, and in March the first Shoreline/Edmonds School District Halley’s Comet flight expedition took off from SeaTac at 1 a.m. aboard an Alaska Airlines MD-80 jet.

One hundred and thirty-five excited teachers raced south to the high desert east of Reno and climbed to 37,000 feet, where we chased Halley for two hours, watching it from the pitch-dark cabin.

We invited a news crew, including Steve Pool from KOMO, to join us. The flight was a huge success.

Pool ended his 5 o’clock news that Saturday afternoon with a short, two-minute piece on our comet flight. The station quickly began getting phone calls: “When’s the next comet flight?”

I hadn’t planned on one. A quick call to Alaska Airlines and another $14,000 check to pay for the jet got another 135 people signed up to see the comet. In all, six flights were made, taking 820 people to see the comet.

Net profit: exactly $50,000, just enough to pay for Uplink.

Project Undersea Uplink was broadcast at 11 a.m. May 19 and, for a wild and exciting hour, students who had never been to an ocean spoke with our Uplink diver, marine biologists and me aboard the ship. The show made “NBC Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw, as well as CNN.

So, for one brief hour, Edmonds became the focus of an amazing triumph of creativity, hard work and technical skill that opened the door to future live, interactive broadcasts.

Robert Ballard, discoverer of the RMS Titanic, worked with our team to do the next Uplink program. Ballard took my idea and formed the JASON Project, doing many shows from his research ship and remotely operated vehicle, Jason.

I’m now retired from teaching, living in Shelton.

But I make several trips to Edmonds every month and, as I drive off the ferry, I always look over at the place where our Northwest Mobile TV broadcast trailer sat. We still get messages from our students who took part in Uplink 31 years ago.

We made a difference in people’s lives.

On most sunny days, you can find me on my boat, still enjoying a nautical life. And on clear nights, I’m at my telescope’s eyepiece, still looking for another comet. Halley’s will return to our skies in 2061. I’m hoping a future teacher will take up the challenge and do something singularly unique.


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