My friend Jim Cameron is best known as the filmmaker who gave us epics like Titanic and Avatar, but in his heart he is an explorer, as he explained in his foreword to my book A Passion for Mars. A few days ago, Jim did something that had me thrilled and terrified at the same time: He made the first solo dive to Earth’s deepest point, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.
Using a submersible of his own design, he reached a depth of more than 35,000 feet—almost seven miles—at pressures of nearly 16,000 pounds per square inch. There, where only two humans had been before, over half a century earlier, he found a landscape so desolate that it reminded him of the surface of the moon. He said later that it felt as if he’d literally gone to another planet and returned the same day. He’d planned to spend six hours on the bottom, but malfunctions in the craft’s robotic arm and maneuvering thrusters cut the dive short.
But this is just a beginning. Jim says he’ll be going back to the Challenger Deep to make further observations and collect samples. Another friend, NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand, will be studying any creatures Jim is able to bring back from the abyss. To me, this is exploration at its greatest: Going where almost no one has ever been, seeing what no one has ever seen, and expanding our knowledge of the universe. To me, Jim is a planetary explorer, probing the remaining secrets of our own precious world, and inspiring us all to join the quest.