Mars in 2015–Books, Movies, and Reality

In the last month I’ve been indulging in a bit of Mars mania. I read Andy Weir’s book The Martian, followed by the movie starring Matt Damon, which was based upon the book. On the heels of this double helping of The Martian I read Rescue Mode, a new science fiction novel by Ben Bova and a NASA friend of mine, Les Johnson.

Both books go to superb lengths to achieve engineering realism in depicting hardware for getting to and living on Mars. The Martian focuses on one man who is stranded on the red planet while Rescue Mode concentrates on the efforts of a crew of eight astronauts whose vehicle is severely damaged on the way to Mars. Different problems, but same stakes: survival beyond the Earth.

The Martian 

The Martian is written entirely in the first person and the protagonist–portrayed well in the movie by Matt Damon–concentrates more on the lone astronaut’s Robinson Crusoe-type challenges with nature using the tools at hand. The movie gives more life to the characters “off screen” in the book. I found the book hilarious, probably because it was easy to identify with a sarcastic white guy who’s a Chicago Cubs fan and has an occasionally profane manner of expressing himself.

The movie version of astronaut Mark Watney is a bit more subdued, perhaps not quite as juvenile, but an admirable character nonetheless. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Matt Damon’s acting is excellent while the movie overall is simply good. The movie has some long stretches of just watching a rover move across the lonely Martian landscape. Or, as someone pointed out about The Lord of the Rings, just a lot of walking. The novel of The Martian needs to keep the reader engaged–in my case, I devoured the book in a couple of days–and so has a few more problems to solve. And there’s just more opportunity for smart remarks by the narrator.

Another thing Weir (and director Ridley Scott, to his credit) handles well is giving all the technology a real-world feel, complete with acronym-heavy jargon, rules and regulations, and a good feel not just for what things are designed to do but what they can be made to do in case of emergencies. Even duct tape makes a good showing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to being faithful to the book is that Weir’s (Watney’s) profanity does not make the movie exactly kid-friendly. S-bombs, F-bombs, cussing galore. Depending on how old your kids are and how much profanity they’re used to, they can probably start watching this film at around age 10-12 (the film is PG-13, though I’m surprised it didn’t make R). It’s not that I’m a huge prude when it comes to cussing, but that does mean limit the age range for kids to watch the story and get inspired by its can-do spirit. Regardless, the book and the movie are great fun and manage to capture an Apollo 13 level of what author David Brin calls “competence porn” set in space as Watney moves from bare survival to problem solving to transcending his situation. I might need to go back to the theaters for another shot at viewing it on the big screen. Worth it.

Rescue Mode

Rescue Mode, which to my knowledge isn’t being made into a movie yet, is a different project. It still features peril on a Mars mission and requires a lot of technological competence to put things right. However, instead of concentrating on one character’s efforts or point of view, Bova and Johnson write about a crew of eight: four men, four women, with a mix of nationalities and races, plus a variety of NASA people and politicians back on Earth. In this way, Rescue Mode is a more mature (in the literary sense), complex, and ambitious work.

The crew includes some rivalries, sexual tension, and personality clashes that add a bit of humanity to the astronauts. The Martian, by contrast, isn’t quite as diverse or nuanced–the primary motivation for most of the off-stage players is dedication to duty. On the whole, the character interactions are handled well, including some eye rolling by the other characters when one of them says something that might be taken as stereotypical in some fashion.

The book is a little slow to start as we’re introduced to the crew and the political players, but once the crew get into space, the pace picks up quickly. You might wonder what sort of political drama is included in a book ostensibly about space exploration. In this case, the authors chose to depict a battle in Washington, DC, over the continued funding of human space exploration, with the president for it and an ambitious senator trying to shut down the Mars program as “too dangerous” and “wasteful.”

One thing I found interesting in comparing The Martian and Rescue Mode is that both books seem to have used the same (or similar) NASA reports in designing their spacecraft and other hardware. Not surprising, I suppose–if NASA manages to get to Mars in the near future, realism demands that you use the hardware they say they’re going to use. Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts about Mars exploration in the real world of 2015.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Both of these books assume something that right now is not foreseeable, or maybe even realistic: the political will to spend the money and time to build all that NASA wants to build to get humans to Mars. The Martian just assumes that it happened without questioning the how or why. Rescue Mode takes a shot at explaining how it might be done with solid support from a U.S. President. Bova and Johnson note that their mission takes place late in the supporting president’s term and that the program would be vulnerable to the next president to come along–even if that president came from the same party. I don’t fault Andy Weir for this–he’s telling an rollicking good adventure story. Bova and Johnson wrote an adventure story but had larger fish to fry, as they try to make a larger political case for human spaceflight. Realistically, any actual future that includes a massive human mission to Mars or even back to the Moon will need to address the politics of it.

Another political point Rescue Mode makes is that the people most likely to benefit from closing or cutting back on NASA-led human space exploration would be commercial entities like SpaceX. Indeed, Elon Musk has stated that he wants to send people to Mars. The book includes a spaceport in New Mexico and makes reference to other commercial enterprises in Texas, Florida, and on the Moon. The real political battle over human spaceflight is not really between people who want it and those who want to close it down but between differing visions of how it should be carried out–and by whom: should the future glory go to NASA or a dedicated billionaire? The Martian doesn’t depict this battle per se, but it clearly stands behind NASA getting the job; Rescue Mode shows NASA having the job but facing pressure from others who would prefer that they don’t.

If it seems strange to be pro-space exploration but anti-NASA, it probably is–just as it’s strange that a Democrat administration is more supportive of commercial space while Republicans are favoring a large government program. However, if you spend some time observing the space business in the 21st century, you will see that we live in strange times. Welcome to the future.