Deeply Obsessed
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
In recent years, the ambition Cameron abandoned as a child – when he decided to go down into the oceans rather than dream of space – resurfaced. He began talking to the Russians about visiting the Mir space station and making a film there. He went through the biomedical screening process in Russia for six weeks so he could qualify for cosmonaut training, and was negotiating to do a Soyuz launch to take him to the space station. When Mir was allowed to burn up during reentry in 2001, Cameron started investigating the only alternative, the International Space Station, and sought NASA's cooperation.

"We actually hammered out an agreement under the Space Act to develop a filmed space mission," he says. "It didn't mean they'd agreed. It meant that they wanted to explore it." Cameron had been planning to live in Russia for 18 months to go through the full cosmonaut training, because he wanted to be the first noncareer astronaut to spacewalk, and to take a camera with him. After September 11, he put the project on hold. He now intends to investigate a simpler mission: using an astronaut as a cameraman and directing him from inside the space station.

I ask him about Lance Bass, 'NSync's wannabe spaceman. Cameron approves; maybe he knows what it's like to be dismissed as a populist with overgrown dreams. "People are going to make fun of him, say, Oh, this is frivolous," he says. "Now, Lance Bass is going to go and have himself an experience. But what's the good that comes from it? You've got a bunch of kids who look up to this guy, and he's not some rapper with a bunch of gold chains and a big white Cadillac, squandering his money. He's saying, All right, I've got a lot of money now. What am I going to do? Get a bigger house? Buy a jet? No, I'm going to go do something that I think is important, something that all of this wealth, all of this American dream, doesn't give me." To Cameron, it's missions like these that lift us onto the first rung of the ladder to exploring the rest of the universe. "We're not going to go out there and meet all those cool alien civilizations and see other planets if we don't take the first step," he says. He's unstoppable now; I guess this is the James Cameron many love, and some loathe: forceful, evangelical, and entirely without self-doubt. "Learning to live in space for long periods of time is the true first step. Going to the moon was a sprint. Those guys were up there for only eight days. I can put up with anything for eight days. To go to Mars, the nearest planet that we can land on, that we could possibly physically explore and walk around on, the only one that stands any chance of being Earth-like enough to ever sustain life in some form, would take two to two and a half years – unless we have some huge breakthrough in propulsion."

Would you go?

"Mmmmm," he says. "Well, that's an interesting question. And it is something that I have my characters in my Mars story [one film project he is working on] struggling with, because when you have a family ..." He laughs at this pretense of weighing the pros and cons; he knows we both know the answer. He can't, and he won't ... but given the slightest chance ...