The Ridley Scott directed film version of the bestseller book The Martian, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars, draws nigh to a release date in early October. An organization called Explore Mars is calling on space advocates to capitalize on the widely anticipated movie, a Monday article in The Space Review suggests. However, the call to political action to support NASA’s humans to Mars program is meeting with some skepticism in certain quarters.
The idea of sending astronauts to Mars has been around since at least the early 1950s. A plan for NASA to conduct a Mars program as a follow up to the Apollo moon landings was rejected in the late 1960s in favor of building the space shuttle. The Mars exploration idea was revived as part of President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 but died soon after at the hands of Congress and President Bill Clinton. The humans to Mars effort was all that survived of President W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration after President Barack Obama cancelled the program. Currently, NASA envisions astronauts setting foot on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
“If space advocates are successful in harnessing the excitement surrounding The Martian—showing that this type of mission is an achievable goal in the next two decades—it can have a real impact on advancing this goal. Indeed, the movie will be released at a very fortuitous time, because it will be when Presidential candidates are developing their policy stances. We shouldn’t expect a new ‘Kennedy moment’ from the next President, but we do need a supportive President who is willing and able to put her/his mark on this future. That mark should not be by hitting a “reset button” on the direction of the space program, but rather by taking the investment and advances we have already made and challenging NASA, industry, and commercial players, and our international partners, to provide a clear plan to land humans on Mars. This is also one of the few issues that is not embroiled in partisan politics, nor is it a budget buster. It would, instead, be an enormous opportunity for the next President and the next Congress, on both sides of the political aisle, to work together for the common good.”
Explore Mars urges space advocates to take actions such as writing letters to the editor, engaging on social media, and making media appearances to advance the cause of Mars exploration. The trick is that the effort anticipates that The Martian will be as much of a smash hit as a film as the book was.
Keith Cowing, the acerbic purveyor of NASA Watch, is more than a little skeptical.
“Given the chronic inability for the space advocacy community to gain any real traction for their ‘space exploration aspirations’ it is quite clear that whatever they have been doing for decades is really not working. Nor is it going to start working any time soon. If all anyone in the space advocacy community can think of doing involves adoring lame PR Mars mission stunts and grabbing the coat tails of sci fi flicks in hope of sniffing the fumes of the film’s success, then I fear there is very little of true substance for space advocates to actually be advocating.”
On the other hand, a humans to Mars mission already has bi-partisan support in Washington, though the effort is currently underfunded. It may be a pity that a film depicting something more immediately possible, say a return to the moon, is not in the offing. It is not as if there is a lack of source material for that kind of space mission, which could happen in just a few years. In any event, the question may not be so much one of public agitation, but of presidential leadership. With an election coming up, that may be something to think on.