When NASA made the announcement about briny water on Mars on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, it at once let loose lips that must have been sealed and sworn to secrecy in the Pasadena area and excited science fact and fiction fans who weren’t privy to that news. It also made the premise of Ridley Scott’s movie, “The Martian,” archaic. That’s a measure of progress because Andy Weir, the author of the book upon which the movie is based, did a lot of research and didn’t so much get it wrong as could not predict the discoveries that would be made between 2011, when he book was published, and 2015, when the movie would be made. Still, “The Martian” is a movie that makes science fact exciting and is already ready for a re-make.
“The Martian” does take us forward in time, to a place where we have actually landed on Mars as part of an Ares program. Ares is, of course, is the Greek name for the Roman god Mars. Ares III has a space habitat station on Mars and a crew of six landing to collect samples. A horrific sandstorm hits the surface and the astronauts must evacuate the planet, leaving the habitat behind and gathering into the rocket to blast off. The high winds lift an antenna and turn it into a spear that pierces one astronaut’s space suit. Because the transmission monitoring his vital signs shows no sign of life, the crew must assume that their comrade, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), has died. The mission commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), makes the decision and orders Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) to leave what they assume is a corpse behind.
Yet Watney is not dead. He awakens half buried in red Martian sand, realizes what has happened and without so much as a bullet and a slug of whiskey, sews up his wound. Take note astronauts wanna-bes, sewing is an essential skill. Watney assesses his situation. His main problems: food and water. To have food, he needs to make more water. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” and this is where kids can learn just how important math, chemistry and botany are. And unlike some science and math lectures, there’s enough explosions and humor to make this lesson fun. The question of fertilizer in quickly resolved because humans do produce manure and luckily NASA astronauts all have to pass stringent health exams. Yet he already knows the NASA Ares schedule. The next mission isn’t due for three years. Like any good scientist, Watney is determined to leave a record and in this day and age one doesn’t write a diary, one vlogs.
Back on the Ares III, the astronauts are heading home, but back at NASA engineers realize that there’s movement on Mars. Watney must be alive. Eventually by upcycling the old Mars rover Watney is able to establish contact with NASA. NASA begins to work on a means of getting supplies to Watney but the hurrieder one goes the behinder one gets. Mistakes are made and NASA’s first plan fails. There is another way, but it would involve endangering the Ares III crew who have, up until now, been kept in the dark about Watney’s survival. NASA nixes that plan, but somehow the crew learns about it and must decide go back and risk all their lives or return and leave Watney behind to starve to death. If you were a heroic astronaut crew what would you do?
JPL NASA is part of the solution and minority science fiction fans (as opposed to Minority Report fans) will be glad to know that the ethnic guy isn’t the first to go. Rather, ethnic scientists–Latino, black and Asian–and women are all part of the solution. Finally a science movie that features science as it truly it, collaborative in nature instead of led by one misunderstood genius (e.g. the recent movie about Alan Turing, “The Imitation Game”). Geniuses and scientists of many races and nationalities are part of the solution as the world cheers them on.
So accept that our knowledge of Mars is increasing rapidly, although not as quickly as you smartphone is going out of date, and enjoy “The Martian” as an archaic science fantasy. Since the publication of the book, science has determined that great dust storms aren’t likely on Mars to there goes the premise for the set up. With water on Mars, the problem becomes desalinization rather then producing water through chemical reaction. Still, in to many ways, Weir gets the essential science right and proves that potatoes are a superior crop to rice, wheat or corn. Next missions might consider including soybeans or peanuts. Just saying.
If you have a future scientists or science fiction writers in the making, then be sure to make full use of the resources available in Pasadena. That includes Caltech and its scientists such as the recently retired Kip Thorne who with producer Lynda Obst recently conceived of the idea behind last year’s intelligent science fiction feature “Interstellar” and was also a consultant on the Christopher Nolan movie, writing a book, “The Science of Interstellar.” Thorne is reportedly working on a new movie idea, a concept that will undoubtedly be intellectually challenging to all of us who don’t understand theoretical physics, but with a good director, entertaining. “Interstellar” was given the Best Science Fiction Film Saturn Award.
“The Martian” will undoubtedly be a strong contender for this year’s award. The scientists will certainly be voting for it and NASA’s head of planetary science Jim Green was an consultant on the film. Science does matter, increasingly in life and in science fiction. Pasadena and Caltech have become the new cool with the rise of geek culture as evidenced with the continued popularity of “The Big Bang Theory.”
After you see “The Martian,” be sure to make plants to visit JPL, too. JPL-NASA in La Cañada-Flintridge will be hosting its annual open house October 10-11, 2015, 9:00 a.m – 4:00 p.m.. The event is free of charge and includes a life-size model of Mars Science Laboratory, demonstrations from numerous space missions; JPL’s machine shop, where robotic spacecraft parts are built; and the Microdevices Lab, where engineers and scientists use tiny technology to revolutionize space exploration.