In a historic solo dive to the bottom of the world, famed filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron descended 35,756 feet (6.77 miles/10.89 km) to reach the "Challenger Deep," the ocean's deepest point located in the Mariana Trench some 200 miles (322 km) southwest of Guam on Monday, March 26.  The descent voyage took two hours and 36 minutes from 5:15 a.m. until 7:52 a.m. local time. In his specially designed submersible DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, Cameron spent about three hours on the seafloor collecting photos and samples for scientific research in marine biology, microbiology, astrobiology, marine geology, and geophysics.  In another first, he also tweeted from the seafloor under a crushing pressure of 16,285 psi (112,280 kPa). The vehicle surfaced at 12:00 noon local time and was retrieved by the Ship Mermaid Sapphire.

Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic. (shown with permission)
Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron gives two thumbs-up as he emerges from the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. The dive was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research.

"This journey is the culmination of more than seven years of planning for me and the amazing DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition team," said Cameron.  "Most importantly, though, is the significance of pushing the boundaries of where humans can go, what they can see and how they can interpret it. Without the support of National Geographic and Rolex, and their unwavering belief that we could successfully make it to the deepest point in the ocean - and back - this would not have happened."

We are moving from an era of limited government-controlled space access using very expensive vehicles to more affordable systems developed by the private sector that can provide frequent trips to space for a variety of purposes.  Multiple companies are rushing to be the first to market, including Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, and Masten Space Systems. Their varied technological approaches and flight plans offer researchers a great deal of options for studying the suborbital realm.  The sky is not the limit!

Last month I attended the 2012 Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) in Palo Alto, California.  The purpose of the conference was to kickstart the imaginations of scientists who may utilize suborbital platforms for research.  Whereas tourism has driven much of the initial investment in the burgeoning new paradigm for space access, it is the research market that stands poised to provide the long-standing demand to sustain the industry.  NSRC provides an incubative environment for research users to interface with spaceflight providers and chart the path forward towards wider utilization of space and advancement of knowledge.

Shaking hands with one of the most recognizable figures of history Neil Armstrong at NSRC-2012.

If you doubt this assertion, just take notice of who gave the main keynote address at this year's NSRC.  Famed moonwalker Neil Armstrong spoke to a group of more than 450 eager audience members who hung on his every word as he related his personal experiences to the edge of space as a test pilot in the X-15 program.  The somewhat reclusive former astronaut rarely gives public experiences, but in this case, he spent an entire day at the conference interacting with the new pioneers of commercial spaceflight.  As evidenced by the photo above, I had the honor of meeting him myself and thanking him for his inspirational life.

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