Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Was Cameron's Deep Dive as Useless as Manned Space Flight?

If excitement is the real product, Cameron should be hunting giant squid.

  • March 26, 2012

Ninety-nine percent of what we know about the solar system came to us from unmanned probes. There can be no argument about comparative value of sending humans to other worlds, at least from a scientific perspective, because our relatively cheap, versatile, expendable robot spawn will win every time.

Does Enceladus harbor life? Maybe we’d know by now if we weren’t so busy sending meat sacks into the harsh vacuum of space.

Indeed, had we spent the money we wasted on the shuttle program on unmanned probes, we would probably know already, for example, whether or not there is life in the watery oceans of Enceladus. Watching astronauts eat space food while weightless is great and all, but wouldn’t you rather know whether or not we’re alone in this universe? 

It’s worth asking whether the same logic applies to filmmaker James Cameron’s just-completed dive to the deepest place on the planet – the Challenger Deep. During the expedition, the hydraulic pump on the submarine’s sample gathering arm failed, which means Cameron failed to bring back anything of scientific value.

In addition, by Cameron’s own account, he saw nothing while on the bottom of the Challenger Deep.

Plus, it’s not as if the ship Cameron used even needed him on board. Before Cameron climbed aboard, it made the dive once before, sans pilot.

Al Dove and Craig McClain point out at Deep Sea News that remotely operated vehicles are already the tool of choice for exploring the deep ocean. Without the need to support a human occupant, these far cheaper, smaller, more reliable and more nimble probes can stay down longer and get more done. For the cost of Cameron’s expedition, and entire fleet of ROVs could be deployed to the Challenger Deep.

ROV’s certainly seem to be the tool of choice these days.  Why is that? The answer is basically pragmatism.  There are incredible challenges to sending people into the abyssal depths and beyond.  The pressures can exceed a thousand atmospheres, which has been described as equivalent to inverting the Eifel Tower and resting its point on your big toe.  That kind of pressure means that a titanium sphere is about the only object that can maintain a 1 atmosphere internal environment.

By contrast, no passenger means no need for air spaces at all, so ROV’s can be built more cheaply and easily, and without the need for complex life support systems that can ensure the safety of the vehicles occupant(s).  An ROV can allow for longer bottom times not constrained by tired pilots or scientists with small bladders.  ROV’s allow for a whole array of scientists to participate in the dive, all sitting in the same control center in the mother ship watching HD monitors.

Yet Dove and McClain are, ultimately, fans of Cameron’s effort. Because even though automated probes and ROVs are the workhorses of our efforts to explore the final frontiers, nothing compares to the excitement of sending an actual human being.

The rise of the ROV is therefore rational, sensible, effective and … boring.

[…]

One does not have to have been to a hydrothermal vent in Alvin to appreciate [human occupied submersibles] anymore than one has to have been to the moon on Apollo 11 to appreciate Armstrong and Aldrin.

The ultimate value of Cameron’s expedition is in the excitement it generates around the valuable deep sea scientific exploration already being conducted.

To that end, here’s my suggestion for Cameron and his sponsors: Drop the pretense of science. Bring to your deep sea dives the same sense of excitement – of narrative – that we find in Cameron’s movies.

From the only set of images of the giant squid ever captured in the wild, by T. Kubodera and K. Mori

In other words, instead of descending to the deepest part of the ocean only to snap pictures of a lunar wasteland, Cameron should build a new submersible. And this one should be designed with one aim in mind: Following in the footsteps of Captain Nemo, it should be used to hunt for the monsters of the deep which we already know are present, but principally, the grandfather of all our nautical nightmares, the giant squid.

The real product of the Deep Sea Challenge is excitement – don’t sell us short.

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