The Drive to Discover
12/1/04 WIRED MAGAZINE
By James Cameron
I have a confession to make. I made the movie Titanic because I thought I could talk the studio into letting me dive and film the real ship, 12,500 feet down in the North Atlantic. I was an avid wreck diver, and it was the ultimate shipwreck. Making the movie itself was actually secondary in my mind. So when I proposed the movie, I pitched the Titanicdives as a marketing hook - and the studio bought it. I figured, if I got killed, it would be before all the sets were built and the actors hired, so the studio wouldn't be out much. My crew and I built our own deep-ocean 35-mm camera system, designed to withstand 10,000 psi of ambient pressure, and in September 1995, we made 12 dives to the wreck using two Russian Mir submersibles. We brought along Snoop Dog, a remotely operated vehicle we had built, which maneuvered around the wreck, getting footage. The plan was to fake the interior shots later, because it was too dangerous for Snoop to go inside. But on the last dive, my curiosity overcame my judgment and we piloted it down the grand staircase to explore B deck and D deck. I'll never forget the thrill and wonder of discovery, watching the video monitor inside that cramped and freezing submersible more than 2 miles down, as the ROV's lights revealed fully preserved woodwork, gold-plated chandeliers, even a marble fireplace. Some of the Titanic's elegance still remained, hidden deep in the wreck.
I was hooked, infected by the deep-sea-exploration virus. After the success of the movie, I found myself less interested in Hollywood filmmaking and more interested in the challenges of deep-ocean photography and exploration. We returned to the Titanic site in 2001 with our digital 3-D camera system to capture stereo images of the wreck. We also used fiberoptic-spooling bots to survey the ship, giving marine archaeologists their first view ever inside. (No one had bothered to photograph the ship in 1912 because they didn't expect it to sink on its maiden voyage; all those pictures you've seen are actually of the sister ship, the Olympic.) The resulting film, Ghosts of the Abyss, was the first Imax 3-D film to be shot digitally.
Since then we have made four more deep-ocean expeditions, including a trip to explore the wreck of the German battleship Bismarck, 16,000 feet down in the North Atlantic, as well as numerous dives at hydrothermal vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the East Pacific Rise. In the last three years, I've spent seven months at sea and gone on 41 deep-submersible dives. I have a wife and four children. Some might question the risks, but I've made my peace with it.
Whenever explorers go into hostile realms, whether in space or in the sea, we live or die by our machines. A big part of the appeal is the engineering challenge - pitting the intelligence and creativity of the team against the implacable elements. There is no more quintessentially human act than to use our consciousness to adapt ourselves to environments in which we could not otherwise survive. It's what we do better than any other species on Earth. Still, there is always that moment when the hatch is closing and a microsecond's thought says, "Maybe this is the last time I'll see daylight." I always say the same thing to those gathered outside as I enter the sub: "See you in the sunshine." It has become a lucky touchstone, a little prayer that we will return safely from the eternal darkness. It's important to acknowledge that the ocean is capricious, that it can give the most remarkable gifts, but it can also take away without warning.
These dives have taught me one overwhelming truth: There is so much we don't know. On every dive I see something I never could have imagined. A diaphanous jellyfish 7 feet across. A pink octopus with wings on its head. Blind shrimp swarming inches from water hot enough to melt lead. Once in a while I see and film something no one else has ever seen, and those are moments of profound satisfaction. Nothing the artifice of Hollywood has to offer can compete with the thrill of something this exciting and 100 percent real.
There are still untold mysteries down there in the dark, enough to fill a hundred years of exploration. Certainly enough to intrigue and compel me for the rest of my life. But of course the truly infinite frontier is in the other direction.
Space is a vacuum. There is, by definition, nothing there. When we talk about exploring space, we really mean exploring the objects careening around in space - planets, moons, the occasional comet. So space is a hurdle, an ocean that must be crossed to reach a destination. Unfortunately, for three-quarters of the space age it has been treated as a destination in and of itself.
The last time humans crossed space to a destination was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. In the 32 years since, no man has seen, with his own eyes, Earth as that beautiful, solitary blue sphere, and - reality check - no woman has ever seen it at all. We've been only to low Earth orbit since 1972, and from that altitude of 220 miles, looking at the 7,900-mile-diameter Earth is like peering at a basketball with your cheek pressed against it. Yes, you'll see curvature, but you're not seeing the whole thing. We've spent 32 years "exploring space" in low Earth orbit. Exploring nothing. To stay in orbit you have to go 17,000 mph, or Mach 25. So we've spent three decades going nowhere fast.
It's taken people a long time to wake up to this fact, but we finally have. Now Exploration with a capital E is in the air again, in what will hopefully become some kind of renaissance. Eleven billion hits to NASA's Web site during the Spirit and Opportunity rovers' exploration of Mars is an astounding groundswell of support. NASA is still blinking in surprise, trying to figure out why people love the rovers yet care less about the construction of the International Space Station than a new interchange outside Cleveland. It is only now sinking in that one is exploration and the other is, well construction.
As we mourned the Columbia astronauts, they were frequently referred to in media as "explorers." The real tragedy of that accident is that they were not explorers. They were boldly going where hundreds had gone before. They were researchers working in a lab that happened to be in orbit. Did their research have value? Of course, but only in the sense that all science has value. Was it worth the price they paid? Not by a light-year. Did they die in vain? Only if we don't learn and take to heart a lesson - not that foam can peel off the external tank and damage the reinforced carbon leading edge of the wing, or even that NASA culture needs to change. But that even after four decades of technical progress, travel to and from space is inherently dangerous, so only go there for a good reason.
In my mind, there is only one reason good enough, and that's exploration. That means going somewhere, not in circles. But actually going somewhere, like the moon or Mars, is considered too risky and expensive. Those high school touchdowns scored by Neil and Buzz and the others are trophies that have been gathering dust, but we still fantasize that we are the same team we were then. The reality is that we have become risk averse, willing to coast on the momentum of past accomplishments. If we study the problem, build tools and systems, and so on for the next 50 years, we can jolly ourselves along that we are still those clever Americans who put a man on the moon back when was that again?
If the next step is to send humans to Mars, then we must reexamine our culture of averting risk and assigning blame. We don't need any miracle breakthroughs in technology. The techniques are well understood. Sure, it takes money, but distributed over time it doesn't require any more than we're spending now. What is lacking is the will, the mandate, and the sense of purpose.
Something interesting is happening right now as you're reading this. NASA is scrambling, under presidential orders, to prepare for a renewed vision of human exploration beyond Earth. They've generated a plan, and it's a good one. I've sat on the NASA Advisory Council for the past 18 months, which is surely the most interesting period since the Apollo days. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has fundamentally reorganized the agency. NASA is figuring out post-shuttle solutions to get people into orbit, how to do the heavy lifting to get big payloads (like interplanetary vehicles) up there, and all the other critical tasks to create human exploration space-systems architecture.
The public understandably asks how this will be paid for. The answer comes with some good news and some bad. The bad news is that space shuttle operations and space station construction and operations (in other words, current human spaceflight) is sucking up about $8 billion of NASA's $15 billion annual budget. The good news is that when the shuttle is retired (2010) and the space station completes its mission (2014), $8 billion a year will be freed up without adding a dime to the NASA budget. Over time, one funding wedge tapers, and the other widens. From 2014 to 2024, you've got a cool $80 bil to send folks to Mars.
The problem is that government projects are subject to bloat. Fortunately, the other recent change is that the private sector has started to really flex its muscle in space. Burt Rutan's flights to win the Ansari X Prize are a milestone in human spaceflight. Does Rutan's technology work for real exploration beyond Earth's orbit? Not directly. But it demonstrates that small companies like Rutan's Scaled Composites, Elon Musk's SpaceX, and Bigelow Aerospace can have a place at the table of human spaceflight in the future. One of the strongest recommendations of the Aldridge Commission, the presidential panel convened to review NASA's exploration plan, is that private enterprise should be made an integral part of the solution.
Everybody talks about the cost of going to space. But what about the cost of not going? Where would our economy be if the space race of the '60s had not happened? What if we hadn't been forced to come up with more-powerful computing to calculate trajectories on the fly while guys were on the far side of the moon in titanium cans? Where will we be in 20 years if we don't do something that captures the public imagination and inspires kids to give a damn about science and engineering again? What if we become Rome, blinded by the image of our own superiority while other younger, more vigorous cultures supplant us?
You may be asking: Shouldn't we solve our problems here on Earth before we go into space? There will never be a time when all people are satisfied, when all wrongs are addressed. We live better, more luxuriously, and longer now than at any other time in history. Cook, da Gama, and Magellan left behind shores wracked by death, disease, and social injustice - but they went, and their societies benefited. Our problems must be solved, but not at the expense of exploration.
Exploration is not a luxury. It defines us as a civilization. It directly or indirectly benefits every member of society. It yields an inspirational dividend whose impact on our self-image, confidence, and economic and geopolitical stature is immeasurable.
So, as the ones paying the tax bills, we have to shout out that we want this! Our shout has to be loud enough that in the mind of the politician, that fear-based processing algorithm, the fear of going becomes less than the fear of not going.
What are we waiting for? Let's go.