Oceanographer Robert Ballard used a 1977 National Geographic grant—and the Alvin submersible (file picture)—to help discover hydrothermal vents deep in the Pacific Ocean's Galápagos Rift, which contained the first known life-forms not dependent on photosynthesis. (Watch video of hydrothermal vents.)
National Geographic's Francis said, "The idea that there are still unique life-forms on the planet that have yet to be discovered is something that most people don't fully appreciate." (Also see "Deepest Volcanic Sea Vents Found; 'Like Another World.'")
In 1985 Ballard made headlines again as leader of the expedition that found the wreck of the H.M.S. Titanic.
The first National Geographic grant was awarded in 1890, when the two-year-old National Geographic Society decided to launch an exploration program to increase geographic knowledge of Earth. That grant was given to a team to explore Canada's Mount St. Elias. The explorers had to turn back because of menacing weather and avalanches, but they returned with a wealth of scientific information, including the first documented sighting of Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak.
The combined total of National Geographic's grants awarded since 1890 is U.S. $153 million. Several committees, consisting of experts in their fields, review more than a thousand grant applications every year and give awards to about a third of them.
"We like to think of ourselves as a risk-taking enterprise," Francis said. "We like for people to come to us with their new ideas and to give them an opportunity to test things that perhaps others wouldn't take a risk on."
(Watch video: "Why Nat Geo Exploration Is 'Important to Us All.'")