Matt Damon may be popular now, but Ray Walston remains my favorite Martian. Video source: RetroAlexander YouTube channel.
The Martian premiered today at theatres across the United States.
Overwhelmingly positive reviews, building on the success of The Martian novel, all point to a big opening weekend at the box office.
The story hypothesizes how NASA's bureaucracy and culture would respond to a lone astronaut stranded on Mars. Although the novel's depiction of NASA is less than flattering, the story is an overall positive paean for the government space program.
The real-life NASA is exploiting the film's popularity, in particular to hype its plans to send people to the Mars surface by the end of the 2030s.
Space journalist Joel Achenbach wrote in The Washington Post last May that Andy Weir's tale “may have also saved the space program in the process.”
In recent months, NASA has apparently grasped that Weir has given the agency an enormous PR boost. He says the success of the book has allowed him to do “all these awesome nerdy things,” and he specifically mentioned touring the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a NASA facility operated under contract by Caltech) in Pasadena, and spending a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he got to meet real astronauts.
NASA has said, repeatedly, that its ultimate goal is a human mission to Mars, and that its human spaceflight programs steppingstones to that destination. But NASA doesn’t have the money to go to Mars now or anytime in the foreseeable future.
NASA doesn't have to cooperate with any film project it doesn't like, nor can a commercial enterprise use the NASA logo without permission.
The 2014 film “Interstellar” chose not to use NASA's real logo. Image source: CollectSpace.com.
The 2014 space spectacular Interstellar, which featured Matt Damon in a secondary role, chose not to seek NASA's cooperation or licensing. NASA used Interstellar to promote its collection of cosmic observations, but did not actively link itself to the film's promotional campaign.
But The Martian has become the shark for NASA's remora.
This week began with NASA announcing that “liquid water flows” on Mars.
Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
“Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”
Using the word “flow” was one giant leap for hyperbole.
Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society posted that day on her blog a more sober analysis of the findings.
This work is considered very strong evidence that at widespread locations on present-day Mars, conditions sometimes arise for brief flows of briny liquid water — probably not rivulets, just spreading wetness in the soil.
Lakdawalla commented, “Personally, I don't think extant life on Mars is any more likely because of today's announcement than it was before. An incredibly salty, corrosive, transient water environment is not a very good place to look for life.”
Throughout the week, NASA TV and the agency's YouTube channels have featured content promoting the film and tying it to NASA's real-world Mars exploration research.
Click the arrow to watch the October 1 event at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.
Bloomberg News noted that “NASA is working to maximize the return on its collaboration with the production.” Among the events, Kennedy Space Center hosted a 90-minute long presentation linking The Martian to NASA's Mars human spaceflight plans. Astronauts Bob Cabana and Nicole Stott joined the film's cast members Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor on the dais.
Andy Weir's tale gets generally high marks for technical accuracy, showing what technology will be required for NASA to seriously attempt a human expedition to the Mars surface.
But NASA's budget nowhere nears the cost for such an endeavor, which may be the film's greatest conceit.
In late July 2014, NASA's former Goddard Space Flight Center director Tom Young criticized NASA's claims that it was going to place humans on Mars in the 2030s. Young said, “We are collectively perpetuating a fraud” by pretending the program on paper is executable for the available funding.
The Martian was written by Weir at the end of the last decade, when NASA's commercial crew program was on paper but unfunded. In the five years since, the NewSpace movement has begun in earnest. Billionaire entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow and Jeff Bezos are investing in 21st Century technology they hope will create a competitive space industry that will lower the cost of access to space. The habitat occupied by Damon's character in the film could very well be a technological descendant of the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats — and those are based on NASA's TransHab research in the late 1990s.
A Bigelow Aerospace model depicting a hypothetical Mars outpost based on its habitat technology. Image source: NASASpaceflight.com.
Speaking yesterday at the Geekwire Summit in Seattle, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said that the most practical way to send people to Mars “would be to get those costs down, to build things that we can afford to fly. … I think we’ve seen with some of the newer companies, that when you allow competition, you drive the cost down, you drive the time scale down.”
My view is, there’s a role for government in the investment and the research, and then there’s a role when the private sector and the markets take over. Is exploring Mars with people a government type of program? Likely. The first few times for sure. But how you get there doesn’t have to be just a government-funded program.
The government takes a very long time to innovate. The plan they are on now would use engines that were developed in the 1970s. Sixty years later, I just don’t think that’s our best way to go to Mars.
The Martian might be a box office blockbuster and win a bucket of awards, but it's unlikely to convince Congress to properly fund a Mars expedition. Part of the problem, as I've written ad nauseam, is that the congressional space authorization and appropriation committees are dominated by politicians whose sole interest is to funnel tax dollars into their states and districts through NASA space centers and their contractors. Innovation through private sector competition doesn't get them re-elected.
Maybe someone can come up with a movie script that shows how to survive that inhospitable environment.