James Cameron IV: The ET Challenge

The ET Challenge
Interview with James Cameron, Part IV

In this multi-part interview, Astrobiology Magazine’s Chief Editor and Executive Producer, Helen Matsos, sat down with James Cameron –extreme explorer, writer, director, and Oscar-winning film-maker–to discuss his project slate. During their discussions, Cameron shared how he became interested in extreme environments, including how he came to operate his own fleet of world-class, deep-sea submersibles. The director also outlined how the frontiers of astrobiology make for great story-telling.


Helen Matsos (HM): Let’s talk about your upcoming expedition to the Arctic ice shelf. Will the development of a cryobot needed to penetrate the ice overlap with similar technology needed to penetrate the ice layer of Europa?

JC: A little bit of sampling has been done — I think there are active projects by astrobiologists at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and Ames to go back and do more work like that. For example, Chris McKay (of NASA Ames) has dived under the ice there. There are lakes that have a permanent ice cover, and they have a very simple or primeval kind of environment underneath the ice. Interesting bacterial mats have been growing down there for centuries.

Artist Conception of Man on Mars
Is Mars habitable for humans? NASA is sending a radiaton monitor to the Red Planet to find out how much protection we humans might require.
Credit: NASA

Our thinking is that we want to show the audience a kind of surrogate mission, a kind of technology demonstrator. We’ll mock-up a Europa Lander, take it down there, set it on the ice, watch it melt a hole and deploy a vehicle into that under-ice environment, and let it fly down with a fiber optic link just like in our bots. In fact, it’ll be a reconfigured bot. We’re going to take our shallow water prototype bot and reconfigure it to fit inside a cylindrical cryobot delivery vehicle, and deliver it through the ice.

The ice is only 15 to 20 feet thick. But the idea is to show the audience how this might be done, just the basic broad steps of it, and then have it go down and take some samples.

The remotely operated vehicle can have an effectiveness that a diver couldn’t. An under-ice diver could only stay down there for an hour or so, but the vehicle could stay down for 10 hours or more, operating, collecting samples, and coming back up. We’ll film it and use it as a conceptual demonstrator, a technology demonstrator, but also we hope we can entice a couple of scientists to come down with us to get some useable samples and data. Otherwise, we’re just a crew down there doing a science fiction film.

HM: Encounters with extraterrestrial life have been a premise of some of your movies. You have a strong sense of how the public responds to those characterizations, so how do you think they might react to the real thing?

SETI@home screen shot
SETI@home uses the idle time of over three million personal computers to sift through radio data for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
Credit: SETI@home

JC: I think we already know. Didn’t Bill Clinton announce that the Allen Hills meteorite contained Martian organisms? Don’t we already know the answer to that? People went, "Hey, there’s life on Mars, cool. It’s bacteria."

HM: So it was no big deal? It didn’t change our societal psyche in terms of our place in the universe?

JC: Absolutely not. I think there are people in the science community who would go crazy to know whether that life was DNA-based — consistent with DNA-based life on Earth, or different from it — but still based on the same type of molecular structure. Or if the life was completely alien, based on fundamentally different combinations of molecules. Or, if there is no life – if we go to the place that should have life based on our understanding of initial conditions, and there is no life – that’s something we need to know. We are playing fast and loose with our planet, and if it turns out to be the only place within a hundred light years in any direction that’s got life, we might want to take things a little easier, be a little bit more respectful.

But if we go to Mars and we go to Europa and find life like us there, fine. That’s a Panspermia scenario, where this stuff is getting splashed off during the early formation of the solar system and spread all around. Maybe we’re from somewhere else originally, maybe from Mars or some planet that doesn’t even exist any more because of early collisions. Who knows? That’s fascinating too, because now there’s an argument that, "Wow, this stuff (life) may be everywhere."

Close-up of a Mars meteorite, showing what some argue appears to be fossilized evidence of ancient microbial life.
Image Credit: NASA

Or maybe we find something that’s completely different and we say "all right, we may have similar initial conditions and come out with a completely different result." Maybe that very different form of life has a true separate origin.

"I think that any kind of exploration should always try to acquire the highest level of imaging. That’s how you engage people — you can put them there, give them the sense that they’re standing there on the surface of Mars. "

I hate to say this, because I am so in favor of going to Mars, of going to Europa and finding this out, but I think that to the average person, the response will be a shrug. If (aliens) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies.

But I think if we found intelligent communication, if the SETI Project said, "Yeah, we definitely got an answer," I think people would react differently to that. I think there’d be fear, there’d be excitement. There’d be all the things that all the science fiction movies have ever shown.

I almost see my duty, if I want to make a film about Mars or Europa, is to get people excited about bacteria. They’re basically not, because they don’t understand the significance. So this is where education and outreach is going to be critical.

There’s no point assuming that if you go win that touchdown, anybody is going to be looking. You know what I mean? You have to get them looking first and then go make the touchdown. If you came in yelling right now, "Hey we found life on Mars," and if it was microscopic, people are not predisposed to understand the significance. So that’s where the education and the outreach, the filming making, the story telling, the narrative part of it is just as important as the science mission.