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Can ‘The Martian’ Save the Space Program?

Can 'The Martian' Save the Space Program?

For anyone who grew up during the heyday of the U.S. space program, one of the most poignant images in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” had nothing to do with the love between fathers and daughters, or even the threatened extinction of the human race. It was the sight of a model Space Shuttle on a shelf in a child’s bedroom, covered in dust. The Shuttle, it was once believed, would make space travel commonplace, little different than hopping on a commercial airliner. But shifting priorities in Washington and the end of the Cold War brought an end to the space race, and the Shuttle’s very efficiency began to make it see mundane. Families once clustered around their TV sets to watch Shuttle launches, but by the time the program was shut down in 2011, they were barely even news.

In “Interstellar,” NASA has gone undercover, funded off the books to avoid questions from a public whose attentions have turned, as they have in our time, away from space exploration and towards more pressing matters of national defense. The agency is still above ground in “Tomorrowland,” whose heroine, Casey, wears a NASA cap throughout, but the decommissioning of their launch pads at Cape Canaveral serves as a sign that the world we live in has forgotten how to dream. We are a society bound to earth by our fear of the extraordinary.

In “The Martian,” that extraordinary has become reality: There have already been two manned missions to Mars before Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew get underway. But the universe is full of unforeseen variables, and when Mark is stranded on the Red Planet, it takes the finest minds NASA can muster — along with a last-minute assist from their Chinese counterparts — to #BringHimHome alive. 

With the U.S. in a “human spaceflight gap” between the end of the Shuttle program and the hoped-for resumption of space travel in 2017, NASA has seized on “The Martian” as a reminder of what they can do — and, in timing the announcement of the discovery of water on Mars to the Monday before the movie’s opening day, why they do it. (It might be a little unseemly for a scientific agency to time its news breaks to the release of a Hollywood movie, but like all government bodies, they only exist to the extent they can convince Congress to fund them, and piggybacking on a Hollywood publicity campaign never hurts.) At a panel at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute on Wednesday, there alongside “The Martian’s” Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis were James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, and real-life astronaut Nicole Stott. 

Unlike “Interstellar” and “Tomorrowland,” “The Martian” doesn’t concern the extinction of the human race — just the fate of one particular human whose survival becomes a global concern. But it’s hard to watch the movie’s portrayal of people and nations setting aside their differences in the process of problem-solving and not think of the political quagmires in which attempts to deal with issues like climate change so often get stuck. Although Stott pointed out that nothing as “extreme” as stranding an astronaut on another celestial body has happened in real life, she said that the way the movie’s scientists, and especially Mark’s fellow Ares 3 crewmembers, dealt with adversity very much rang true to life. “It was exactly what I would have expected a crew trained by NASA to do in that situation,” she said. “You treat things like they’re real, until they’re not.”

Davis, who plays mechanical engineer Mindy Park, says that the movie served as an entry point into a “prohibitive world” that’s usually fenced off by jargon — an experience that also applies to her role as a pioneering computer programmer on “Halt and Catch Fire.” In playing those characters, she taps into the “very human desires” that motivate them, just as “The Martian” translates the abstract idea of space travel into the pressing need to save one man’s life. “It’s not distant stuff,” she said. “It’s practical and life-saving. It’s so cool to make science and math immediate.” Stan, who plays an astronaut in the movie, called space exploration “a must-pursuit.”

For Green, the connection between NASA’s mission and human survival is not merely metaphorical. “The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, and they didn’t make it.” he said. “If you have a laptop, you back it up. Where’s the backup for the human race?”

This is merely subtext in “The Martian,” and if, as expected, it handily outpaces “Interstellar” and “Tomorrowland” at the box office, it might be an indication that audiences prefer it that way. But no one who’s attuned to the issues at stake can watch the movie and fail to be moved by its tribute to humankind’s potential to “science the shit out of” a problem, even (perhaps especially) one we created ourself. What’s at issue, Stott, the Shuttle astronaut, said, isn’t our collective abilities but our collective will. “It’s a matter of us deciding to do it.”

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