In a Tuesday story in The Federalist, Kurt Schlichter poses the idea that the smash hit film “The Martian” is as much a time travel story as it is a tale of space exploration. The idea is that the NASA and society depicted in the film are those that existed 50 years ago, when space exploration meant going somewhere with actual astronauts. Today’s space agency is too obsessed with political correctness and bureaucratic posterior covering ever to mount an expedition to Mars, not to mention arrange for the daring rescue mission of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet.
The author stretches things to make the point, but it is well made nevertheless.
“Of course, this movie could only work in such a fictional universe. In the real world, with the real NASA, there would never be a mission to Mars in the first place, much less a gigantic effort and huge investment of resources to bring back one marooned (white, cisgendered male) astronaut. Just think of all the food-stamp cards that could be recharged if we only gave up on our silly striving toward the stars! Oh wait, we already have given up.
“The NASA of “The Martian” works. None of the scientists are tweaking the data to goose the temperature trends out of their slump and fuel the global warming panic. No one is worried about whether the space agency is conducting enough outreach to the Muslim world. Movie NASA simply consists of brilliant people dedicated to using objective scientific data to solve real-life problems. There’s no place in their world for ruffled feathers and hurt feelings over innocuous microaggressions.
“No, it’s a world that requires tangible, concrete results, and that’s the most problematic thing of all. You can either do math or you can’t. There are no participation trophies, and if you aren’t the best you need to move along and get out of the way so someone better than you can come along and do the job. This is not social science, it’s science science, and there is only one right answer.”
The premise falls down a little bit when one notes that NASA still does great things with uncrewed planetary probes. The feats of New Horizon, Mars Curiosity, and Cassini, among other missions, proves that. The real complaint of the article is why is NASA not exploring space with people, just as it did in the 1960s during the Apollo program? The answer to that question actually exists beyond the pay grade of the NASA administrator.
This author’s recent political study of a return to the moon demonstrates that the real reason that NASA is not the competent, bold space agency that sent men to the moon 50 years ago is that it has never been seriously asked to do something like that since. To be sure, two presidents named Bush proposed comprehensive space exploration programs, which were stillborn, not so much thanks to NASA being too PC, but because of politics at the presidential and congressional level. Mars is still an official destination, but neither the current president nor Congress is providing sufficient funding. The president’s declaration that the moon is off limits to NASA is complicating the Road to Mars, making it unnecessarily expensive and complicated, as a recent MIT study suggests,
During the Apollo era, NASA was given a clear direction, to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth, enough funding to accomplish that feat, and the leadership to make it happen. The convergence of all three sufficient to go back to the moon or send people to Mars has never happened since.
Yet all three have been available to send a probe past Pluto, land a rover the size of a car on Mars, and orbit both Jupiter and Saturn, in living memory. The reason these things are possible is that the direction, the money, and the leadership are sufficient to do all of those things and more.
“The Martian” is a time travel story in the sense that it not so much depicts an NASA as it existed in the 1960s, but as it may exist in the 2030s or 2040s when the Mars expedition is depicted taking place. Clearly, some future American president has provided the direction, funding, and leadership to get people to Mars. NASA has responded to the challenge, just as it did in the 1960s. “The Martian” is therefore not so much a movie about nostalgia of a bygone era, but one of hope, that great things still lay ahead.