Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Robinson Crusoe on Mars




In watching The Martian, apparently the future is no better for NASA than it is now.  Even by its own estimates, we are at least 20 years away from a manned expedition to Mars, assuming they get the funding from Congress.  In this film, it was at least the third expedition to Mars, setting the date sometime around 2050, with NASA as cash-strapped as ever.

Another space oddity is mission commander Melissa Lewis's passion for disco music.  I guess she listened to these albums on her grandmother's old turntable, although her husband at one point proudly holds up an ABBA Greatest Hits gatefold album in a video message, which he picked up in an antique store, with no scratches no less.  It would probably be worth a small fortune by this time given the disco revival.

For the most part, The Martian has received rave reviews.  Even Neil de Grasse Tyson found little to complain about as far as the science goes.  He questioned some of the administrative decisions and the fact that NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena doesn't track astronauts, at least not in the present day.

The oddest part of the movie is that it didn't feel futuristic at all.  In fact, it felt oddly retro as if we were going back to the old Apollo moon missions, which seemed more the inspiration here than some of the fantasies we have seen presented for a Mars mission.   Elon Musk is determined to be the first private entrepreneur to Mars and has some very elaborate plans to make Mars more habitable.  But, in this movie, NASA is still calling the shots, working in tandem with the Chinese space program at one point to resupply its astronauts in space. Time is an essential element in storytelling, and there is no sense of time in this movie.  Past, present and presumably future are all compressed into some kind of black hole, c.

I was kind of surprised Ridley Scott chose China and not Russia in this regard, as Russia has a far more developed space program, which we are currently reliant on to send astronauts to the International Space Station, but I guess Ridley is no fan of Vladimir Putin.  In fact, it is Musk's creation, Space X, that is busily trying to come up with a low-cost rocket to send astronauts to the space station and beyond.  It finally had its first successful launch after several tries.  Jeff Bezos's space program, Blue Origin, had managed to beat Musk's rocket to the punch, successfully launching one of its rockets one month earlier, but Musk was able to deliver commercial satellites into space, which Bezos did not.

It is odd that Scott chose to go solely with NASA in this movie, given how financially strapped it is and is anxiously awaiting Musk or Bezos to be able to have a fully functioning rocket that can deliver its astronauts to the space station.  Both should be able to achieve this goal in the next few years.  At the moment, NASA seems to be pinning its hopes on Musk.

For whatever reason, Tyson chose not to note these things, more interested in the actual science that was explored in slingshotting the Hermes 3 back to Mars to pick up the lost astronaut, Mark Whatney, before his potato supply ran out.

The best scenes for me were those on Mars, where Whatney tries to scratch out an existence in the desolate soil, fertilizing it with his own shit, and drawing water through condensation.  Whatney made it work until some ill Martian winds blew open his improvised greenhouse, instantly freezing his crop.   Apparently, solar panels provided enough energy to resupply his oxygen throughout the roughly two years he spent on the planet.  His body definitely showed signs of wear of tear, but mostly malnutrition, whereas I think his muscles would have all but atrophied by then.  But, I guess there is just enough atmosphere to offer resistance.

One can read Andy Weir's book, on which the movie was based, for more details.  He is a self-publishing hero, having successfully turned his personal effort into a bestseller in 2013.   From what I saw in the movie, it reads more like a rocket scientist's wet dream than Robinson Crusoe on Mars, as most of the focus was on getting Whatney back to Earth.  He could have had much more fun with the story, I thought, but it wasn't without its humor, notably the constant allusions to the 70s disco era.  Not sure if this was Ridley Scott's or Andy Weir's conceit.


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