National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and filmmaker James Cameron piloted the submersible DEEPSEA CHALLENGER on the first solo dive to the deepest known point in the ocean on March 26, 2012. Even though he was the only one crammed into the tiny sub, Cameron had a team that helped him accomplish his goal of reaching the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep solo and completing the first extensive manned scientific exploration of the trench ever. There were more than 100 people, from scientists to filmmakers, who worked on the project, though Cameron says his core team was composed of 18 individuals.
Since Cameron’s mission was to create a new kind of sub and take it into basically uncharted territory, finding someone with that specific type of experience was not an option.
“So, how do we pick them?” Cameron asks. “Well, some of them I had worked with before. But a number of them were new people. We would look at what their experience was. You’re not going to find someone who is going to give you a resume that says, ‘Oh, I build subs that traveled to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean.’
“It turned out that there were a number of the people that worked on the sub that had never worked on a sub before, but they knew electronics and they knew batteries. For example, there were people that worked on the sphere, on the pressure hold, that had never built a pressure hold for a sub before, but they knew a lot about steel. They knew a lot about forging and welding and that sort of thing. So we had to look carefully at who knew what. The guy that manned the entire electronics program for the whole development of the vehicle was 27—he was 26 when he started. His background was actually robotics, even though we were not building a robotic vehicle.”
While the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team hailed from wildly different backgrounds, including engineering, science and the arts, there was one primary qualification they all shared.
“I only want people on my projects who are going to bring 100 percent,” Cameron says. “I don’t want them to think about it as a job. It’s a job and we will pay you, but you have to be excited about it. I always tell them that I am paying you, but you should pay me because you should think that this is the coolest thing you can possibly do. If you do not agree with that, don’t come on the expedition.”
Many major decisions for DEEPSEA CHALLENGE were made by trusting the intuition, as well as the experience, of the team.
“Usually, we did our best thinking in a group, sitting around a table and just taking the ideas and just beating them up and seeing what made sense,” Cameron says. “Sometimes it was instinctive. You would have good engineers sitting around the table and they wouldn’t be able to exactly quantify why they felt something was going to work better than something else. It was just based on experience. Literally, sometimes we would vote, ‘Who thinks we should add 200 millimeters to the length of the central structural beam? A show of hands.’ It’s kind of crazy, but it worked because people had their gut instincts of what they thought was going to happen. We didn’t have time to test everything, so think of a small program done by a small group of people. You really have to shoot from the hip based on good solid experience.”
From The Abyss to Astrobiology
Some members of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team are filmmakers Cameron had worked with on films he directed, including 1989’s The Abyss, a science fiction movie set under the sea.
“The interesting thing I found was film people are especially good because of deadlines,” Cameron says. “They understand that you’re working on a unique project that doesn’t resemble anything that anyone has done before, let alone anything that they have done before. And it has to be made on time and budget. So that’s what’s unique about film people, because every single job that they do is something challenging, has to be done for a price and it has to be done on a deadline. If it’s a week late, it doesn’t do anybody any good, because the movie is shooting and if you’re going to make an animatronic orca [killer whale], it has to show off and operate when the film needs it to be there. Whereas a lot of people who come from aerospace programs and other technology development programs, they are used to longer schedules. They are a little bit more open-ended.”
Filmmaking professionals are also ideal for a small crew.
“Filmmakers are generalists,” Cameron says. “They know a little bit about a lot, whereas most people specialize and they know a lot about a narrow field. Their information is very deep, but it’s narrow. Filmmakers are forced to know a lot, but it’s in so many different subjects. Everyone on an expedition has to be able to do all kinds of things and wear multiple hats, because you can’t bring 100 people. You can only bring 15 or 20 people.”
One unexpected team member is National Geographic Emerging Explorer and astrobiologist Kevin Hand, who is searching for life in outer space. Cameron says there is a reason Hand was part of the crew.
“Scientists are always trying to find out how life originated on Earth, and they have to propose ideas for what that early environment was—where the building blocks of life, amino acids, were actually able to come together and form the first organisms,” he says. “So it has been proposed that maybe it was a warm puddle someplace at the top of the surface with sunlight. It has been proposed that it was a hydrothermal vent, the mid-oceanic ridges where new ocean crust is being formed, where they have the black smokers and chimneys and so on. Because there is chemical energy there, it’s coming from the heat of the Earth and doesn’t require sunlight.
“Well, a new hypothesis is that the subduction zones actually generated enough energy, heat, and chemical energy to have supported the origin of life. So what Kevin was really interested in finding was bacterial mass, bacterial colonies that were living in a place where they were getting their energy from deep down in the Earth caused by the subduction of one plate going underneath another one.”
Cameron learned from the project that every team member has a purpose—including him.
“One of the things I have had to learn over all these projects is how to put the team together and how to get the team motivated and focused on goals while you’re going along,” he says. “That’s my job.”
Ron Allum is the DEEPSEA CHALLENGERs co-designer and pilot, as well as James Camerons trusted partner on deepsea expeditions since 2001. Allums scientific knowledge and engineering skills earned him the nickname the Professor of the team.
Follow Your Passion
I do think its important for the teachers to encourage kids to be curious and to follow their passion, Cameron says. I think its important for kids to not think ever that science is uncool. Were a technological species, and we need to understand how the world works and need to understand how technology works.
Team of Teams
Many people contributed to the success of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE. The teams involved were: Sub Team, Expedition Team, Science Team, Lander Team, ROV Quasar Team, the crew of the MV Mermaid Sapphire, Shore Support Team, Sub Build Team, and Film Team. Read about the team members here.
business concerned with the manufacturing and operation of vehicles that fly in and above Earth's atmosphere.
nutrient containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that is critical for all life.
electronically operated figures.
person who studies the possibility of life in outer space.
(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.
type of ocean vent that ejects black mineral fluid (not smoke) into the surrounding water.
money, goods, and services set aside for a specific purpose.
deepest measured point in the ocean (part of the Mariana Trench), about 11,000 meters (36,198 feet), located in the South Pacific Ocean.
tall structure composed of minerals ejected from vents along the ocean floor.
time or date by which something must be completed.
ongoing expedition to study the deepest point in the ocean, with a record-breaking descent to the Challenger Deep in March 2012.
devices or tools that use electricity to work.
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.
pre-eminent explorers and scientists collaborating with the National Geographic Society to make groundbreaking discoveries that generate critical scientific information, conservation-related initiatives and compelling stories.
to form or make by heating and hammering into shape.
person whose skills and abilities are applied to a wide variety of subjects and fields.
related to hot water, especially water heated by the Earth's internal temperature.
statement or suggestion that explains certain questions about certain facts. A hypothesis is tested to determine if it is accurate.
natural motivation or behavior.
insight or perception.
carnivorous whale, actually the world's largest species of dolphin. Also called an orca.
underwater mountain range.
thin layer of the Earth that sits beneath ocean basins.
interior part of a ship or submersible.
to measure or determine the quantity associated with something.
branch of electronics that deals with the study, construction, operation, and use of robots, or machines that can perform tasks.
metal made of the elements iron and carbon.
straight, strong structural element supported at each end and can withstand pressure applied perpendicular to its length.
area where one tectonic plate slides under another.
small submarine used for research and exploration.
one of a kind.
crack in the Earth's crust that spews hot gases and mineral-rich water.
to join two or more pieces of metal by applying heat to melt the parts of metal to be joined.