NASA and 'The Martian': It Was Written in the Stars; the New Ridley Scott Film's Success Could Decide the Future of Space Exploration

By Lidz, Gogo | Newsweek, October 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

NASA and 'The Martian': It Was Written in the Stars; the New Ridley Scott Film's Success Could Decide the Future of Space Exploration


Lidz, Gogo, Newsweek


Byline: Gogo Lidz

Updated | Eight months ago I mashed my boots into 4,000 tons of dirt the color of a pumpkin spice latte. All around me stuff was being blown up, huge Lego-like vehicles teetered, and lights flashed brighter than the Las Vegas Strip.

No, this wasn't Burning Man. I was on Mars.

From inside a mysterious black tent on my right, a voice boomed in a Yorkshire accent: "Tilt and backwards!" Earthlings in the dirt scrambled. "The tilt is too jerky. There's a jerk!"

This Mars was inside a dust-covered studio soundstage just outside Budapest, Hungary. The voice belonged to Ridley Scott, the British director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator fame (and Exodus: Gods and Kings infamy). The orange dirt under my boots was the setting for his latest project, The Martian, a Matt Damon vehicle (and his vehicle is a Mars rover) scheduled for theatrical release October 2.

The 3-D epic, a Robinson Crusoe-esque survival tale set two or three decades in the future, is based on a 2011 online serial book turned best-selling novel by former AOL computer programmer Andy Weir. Mark Watney (Damon), an astronaut exploring the fourth rock from the sun, is impaled by an antenna during a dust storm and left for dead by his crew. Since he has no way to communicate with NASA and the next mission to Mars isn't due to arrive for four years, he must tough it out in a brutal environment with just 10 months' worth of supplies. Watney uses all of his scientific know-how to grow food, secure water and alert NASA that he's still alive. A resourceful mechanical engineer, he figures out a way to turn his pee into rocket fuel.

NASA might be the book's biggest fan, and Weir told Wired the agency views the project "as an opportunity to re-engage the public with space travel." Last May, The Washington Post observed: "Andy Weir and his book The Martian may have saved NASA and the entire space program," citing NASA's struggle to get enough funding for Mars missions and the huge PR boost the novel gave the agency. NASA is hoping that the film adaptation of The Martian will be a Jupiter-sized smash and that its success will trigger renewed interest in space exploration, just as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey did a half-century ago.

From 1959 to 1974--the space race era--NASA launched Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab--30 manned missions in 15 years. But since then, the agency hasn't done much new exploration with humans, instead focusing on the International Space Station, a $150 billion shared laboratory whose biggest recent contribution to science may have been allowing astronauts to eat lettuce while orbiting 200 miles above Earth.

According to a 2013 poll commissioned by Boeing and the nonprofit Explore Mars, 75 percent of Americans want to double NASA's budget to ensure humans get to the red planet soon. NASA hopes to send people there by the 2030s and insists it could meet that goal if the Senate approves President Barack Obama's proposed $18.5 billion NASA budget for the 2016 fiscal year (a $500 million increase from 2015).

At a National Press Club breakfast in September, two retired NASA astronauts, Colonel Terry Virts and Captain Mark Kelly, said that to get to Mars, NASA needs to goose America's interest in the planet. Getting to Mars is "more a question of political science than it is rocket science," said Virts. In 1989, as part of his Space Exploration Initiative, President George H.W. Bush proposed a Mars mission as NASA's long-term goal, but it was later abandoned. (During the next administration, Bill Clinton said human missions to Mars were too expensive and favored robotic probes instead.)

Bran Ferren, a former Disney Imagineering chief who has served on government advisory boards for science and technology, says NASA is "kind of lost at the moment" and "needs to be reinvented and reorganized and get on with this notion of exploration. …

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