Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Martian

"Dariusz Wolski’s dazzling 3-D cinematography often shows people dwarfed by the immensity of their surroundings: Watney by the mountains and craters of Mars, the Hermes crew by the infinite blackness of outer space, even the NASA engineers huddled together under their enormous, and too often useless, screens. But the animating humanism of Scott’s film is irreducible. It’s a wry tribute to the qualities that got our species into space in the first place: our resourcefulness, our curiosity and our outsized, ridiculous, beautiful brains."
The Martian is a 2015 American science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. The film is based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel The Martian, which was adapted into a screenplay by Drew Goddard. Damon stars as an astronaut who is incorrectly presumed dead and left behind on the planet Mars, and who then fights to survive. The film also features Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in supporting roles.

Producers Simon Kinberg began developing the film after 20th Century Fox optioned the novel in March 2013. Drew Goddard adapted the novel into a screenplay and was initially attached to direct, but the film did not move forward. Ridley Scott replaced Goddard, and with Damon in place as the main character, production was green-lit, and filming began in November 2014.

Filming lasted approximately 70 days at Korda Studios sound stage in Budapest, Hungary, one of the largest in the world. Wadi Rum in Jordan was also used as a practical backdrop for filming. Wadi Rum had been used as a backdrop for other films set on Mars, including Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000), and The Last Days on Mars (2013). Ridley Scott chose to film The Martian with 3D cameras. Around 20 sets were constructed for The Martian (where 70 were built for Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings and over 100 for American Gangster). Actual potatoes were grown in a sound stage next to the one used for filming. They were planted at different times to be used to show different stages of growth in the film.

Andy Weir avoided writing Watney as lonely and depressed in his novel. While Watney's humor is preserved in the film, Scott balanced it against visually depicting the character's isolation in the inhospitable territory. Damon said he and Scott were inspired by the 2003 documentary film Touching the Void, which featured trapped mountain climbers. Scott also expected to film Watney as a Robinson Crusoe, a character in full isolation, but learned to film Watney differently since the character would be self-monitoring his behavior under the watch of various mission cameras.

Forbes‍ '​s Peter Himler said American astronauts had traditionally been used by public relations to promote commercial products, starting with the drink Tang. Himler said it "came as no surprise" that NASA astronauts in the International Space Station were reported by The Guardian and CBS News as having read Weir's novel and hoping to see the film on board the ISS. NASA participated in the marketing of the film despite its lack of involvement with previous films. Though it turned down a request for Interstellar to be screened on the ISS, The Martian was screened on board 402 km (250 miles) above the Earth's surface on September 19, 2015, and also at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on October 1, 2015.

"Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm in The Martian, making potatoes the first Martian staple. Today, in low-Earth orbit, lettuce is the most abundant crop in space. Aboard the International Space Station, Veggie is a deployable fresh-food production system. Using red, blue, and green lights, Veggie helps plants grow in pillows, small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer, to be harvested by astronauts. In 2014, astronauts used the system to grow “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and just recently sampled this space-grown crop for the first time. This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars."

What I’m concerned about is the way in which a mission to Mars is portrayed in the book and film. It looks a lot like an Apollo mission to Mars, and in 2015 that’s a problem.

From outward appearances, almost all of the hardware is NASA hardware. All of the important decisions are made by NASA people. There isn’t a whiff of commercial space in the film. Not a SpaceX, nor even a Boeing. It’s all NASA. (Not that NASA isn’t great. It is.)

Moreover of the six astronauts in Mark Watney’s crew, five are Americans and one German. NASA’s mission to Mars is nearly American only. (I’m American. I love America.) This might all be fine except for the fact that it isn’t 1969.

It’s 2015. The world has changed. Spaceflight has changed. And NASA isn’t going anywhere without private and international partners. It simply can’t begin to afford an Apollo-like, go-it-alone, brute force mission to Mars.

A few years ago SpaceX began flying cargo supply missions to the International Space Station. By NASA’s own estimates it would have cost the agency six or eight times as much had it developed that capability through its traditional spacecraft building methods. NASA is slowly privatizing, but if it is to reach Mars any time in the 2030s it must do so more rapidly.

Another big problem for NASA is that White House leadership changes every four to eight years. NASA has been on its “Journey to Mars” for four years or so now, but that could very well change with the next President. He or she might think the moon is a better first stop, or could scrap the Mars program entirely.

NASA needs stability to accomplish long-range goals. That means it must enter into long-term plans with major international players, which would force the White House and Congress to honor those deals over decades. Unfortunately there is, as yet, no international consensus that NASA and its partners should go to Mars. Many want to go to the moon first.

To be fair, in an interview earlier this year, The Martian’s author, Andy Weir, acknowledged much of this. Moreover, in the film, China’s space program actually saves the day with a spare rocket to deliver supplies to Watney on Mars.

But I’m afraid the public will see an all NASA crew landing in all NASA vehicles on Mars, and assume all is well on our happy little journey to Mars. It unfortunately is not.

For the curious: Ares 3 launched on July 7, 2035. They landed on Mars (Sol 1) on November 7, 2035. The story begins on Sol 6, which is November 12, 2035.

More information:
» Modern Farmer: "Fact-Checking The Martian: Can You Really Grow Plants on Mars?"
» Washington Post: "It's sci-fi, but The Martian has real science in it"
» Houston Chronicle: "As NASA Seeks Next Mission, Russia Holds the Trump Card"

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