Thursday, March 18, 2004

"I'm a joker, I'm a (black) smoker, I'm a midnight toker"

Steve Miller Band, "The Joker"

Sometimes the famous people who come to JSC get to come here because they're famous. That is, they get special treatment because they're celebrities (Tom Cruise, Aerosmith) or they're heads of state (George HW Bush, Queen Elizabeth) or something like that. Every once in a while, though, someone comes through who happens to be a celebrity but deserves to be there. Like James Cameron, for example.

Yes, he directed Titanic, Aliens, Terminator, and The Abyss, but he also organized some deep water expeditions to the ocean's floor, including an IMAX films of the real Titanic and a TV movie on the Bismarck. Last summer he went out with several crews in four submersibles, and made several dives himself. He invited not the oceanographic institutes (like Woods Hole and Scripps) but astrobiologists and the like from NASA. And he outfitted one of the subs with a 3-D IMAX camera to look at deep sea hydrothermal vents (aka "black smokers").

Why NASA geeks? Well, what's an astrobiologist to do when there's no biology to actually study in the astro? Take him to the next closest thing. Let an astronaut experience what it's like to explore a new world.

Cameron was at NASA this afternoon to show a special edition of the not-yet-released movie, Extreme Life, kind of as a thank you to NASA for helping him out. We saw footage that will not be in the final cut, stuff he put in to give us a little more of an idea how things might work if you use a deep-sea mission as an analog to a deep-space mission. Here's how it was described in today's daily "JSC Today" email:

  • Xtreme Life: An overview of the Scientific and Filmmaking expeditions to the Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents.

    Center personnel are invited to a technical presentation by Oscar-winning film director James Cameron, who will be giving an overview of the scientific, technological, and exploration goals on his recent 3D IMAX filming expeditions to the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean floors. Cameron, his crew, and a group of scientists spent two months at sea using multiple human-piloted submersibles to study and film the "black smoker" hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the East Pacific Rise. Researchers at JSC participated in the expeditions through the NASA Oceanographic Analog Missions Activity (NOAMA), using the similarities between and space deep sea exploration to provide opportunities for advancing mission operations and planning. Experiments and observations were made in areas such as astrobiology, sample collection/processing/ curation, data flow, traverse/dive planning, communications, remote science, science operations, mission operations, human/robotic interaction and telerobotics, human factors, and crew training. Mr. Cameron will show some of the HD footage from the expedition as he describes the technologies and exploration strategies employed to achieve the goals of the expedition and to unravel the mysteries of one of the most fascinating phenomena on Earth.

The footage he showed was unfreakinbelievable. We sat there and watched it with our collective jaws on the floor. Several times he asked if anyone knew what that fish was because none of the marine biologists on board had ever seen one either, or how that particular mushroom-shaped structure composed of sediment could have formed. It was as alien an environment as you could imagine - and he's imagined one or two in his time as a director. More alien, actually, since you know it's real.

In the Q&A that followed, he joked that the only reason he made Titanic was so that he could dive the site. And that gave him the luxury (and clout) to do things like this.

You can have Tom Cruise flying the shuttle simulator with girls drooling all over him because he's good looking. I'll take someone who can tell a good story and make my mouth fall open in wonder.

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