The exploration and settlement of Mars is one of the great challenges of our time — a point strongly underlined by Monday’s announcement of the discovery of potentially life-holding liquid water on that planet — so it is not surprising that there have been many good novels investigating its possibilities. There have, however, been no worthwhile movies on the subject. True, there have been a fair number of big-budget extravaganzas that nominally involve Mars, but these have been simply a bunch of shoot-’em-ups, horror stories, or journey-to-the-fantastic-revelation remakes set on the Red Planet.
That is about the change. This week Twentieth Century Fox will release The Martian, based on the fine novel of the same name by Andy Weir, and theater audiences everywhere will finally be able to see with their eyes a piece of the vision that many of us working in the Mars-exploration community have been trying to see with our minds for the past half century. The Martian is thus historic, being in point of fact the first actual Mars movie.
The story line of The Martian is simple. It is a tale of survival, of a single astronaut, Mark Watney, played in the movie by Matt Damon, who is stranded on Mars and needs to use his wits and his grit to figure out how to survive. He has some help, to be sure, from his comrades aboard a distant interplanetary spacecraft and those who stand by them at Mission Control, but ultimately it is up to him to find expedients to defeat the hazards of the hostile Martian environment and in fact put it to work to create the resources necessary to last until rescue can arrive.
If one were to compare The Martian to other works, the obvious choice would be Robinson Crusoe, as they both face and deal with similar predicaments. But as it relates to the situation of our space program today, I think that an analogy with Homer’s Odyssey would be more apt.
Think about it. At the time Homer spun his tale, the Greeks were just beginning their career as a nation of seafaring explorers, traders, and overseas settlers. Surely there must have been more timid souls who warned of the dangers of such ventures into the unknown. But Homer had an answer: Odysseus, the clever man who uses his mind. Poseidon the sea god is his adversary, but Odysseus has made Athena, the goddess of practical wisdom, his friend, and with the kind of help she has to offer, he can win through despite storms, cyclopes, sorceresses, giants, monsters, or whatever other threats there might be.
Fear not; human ingenuity and determination can prevail over the hidden terrors of the unknown. This is certainly a message our society could use now. For example, on September 21 the New York Times published a dire op-ed by Ed Regis, a philosopher specializing in “pathological technology,” warning of the incredible dangers barring the way to Mars. It would take nine months to get to Mars, says Regis, quite counterfactually, because we have done it in six, which is the standard length of a space-station crew rotation. This would be unendurable, he says, even though it has been repeatedly endured by space-station crews, and other people under much more difficult circumstances throughout human history have endured much worse for much longer. Microgravity exposure would destroy the crew’s bodies, he warns, despite the fact that it has not done so on the space station, and can be avoided entirely by rotating the spacecraft. Furthermore, upon reaching Mars, they would find a planet with a carbon dioxide atmosphere, and thus no source of oxygen other than water frozen in the soil, despite the fact that carbon dioxide contains oxygen, and there are several proven technologies for making oxygen from CO2, including one that has been available for about 2 billion years. Mars is a “veritable hell,” he says, and we cannot currently “put human beings on Mars and expect them to live for more than five minutes” — a statement that surely would surprise those Americans of an older generation who lasted a lot longer than five minutes on the much more hostile surface of the moon.
In the Middle Ages, there were artists who made a living inscribing illustrations of dragons on maps of unexplored oceans, and, as we can see from the above, their modern-day equivalents are now out in force again, providing similarly useful navigational aids to the space program. But it is not just ignorant outsiders who are spreading terror: The NASA leadership itself has embraced fear to justify paralysis. Consider the following: NASA included radiation-detection instruments on probes sent to Mars in 2001 and 2012. Both returned the same results, showing that a crew undertaking a six-month voyage to Mars would receive a cosmic-ray dose about double that received by a space-station crew member over the same period. Announcing the results from the first probe in 2002, NASA proclaimed, accurately, that this showed that cosmic rays were not a showstopper for human missions to Mars. But in 2013, nearly identical data was used by NASA as the basis of an announcement that humans should not attempt to go to Mars until a much faster space drive is developed, which is not in the cards for decades, if that. Thus, with all the sincere regret of a ten-year-old observing that a four-inch snowfall must certainly preclude school attendance for at least a week, the space agency leadership sought a rationale from exaggerated danger for several more decades of stagnation.
Odysseus and Mark Watney demonstrate the kind of mind needed to take on the unknown. They are fictional, but the leaders of America’s space program once showed those qualities in real life. In 1961, we did not know how we could get to the moon. But we knew we were Americans and that we had what it took to do what had never been done, and which had to be done in order to astonish the world with what free people can do. Today we face similar challenges — from Putin, from China, from the Islamists, each of whom in their own way is saying that our time is past — which require a similar response. So once again, our space program needs to do something grand. I think we can do it, but to do so, we will need to look within ourselves and find once again those characteristics, not only of ingenuity, but of faith in our powers, resolution, and above all, courage, shown by the Martian.
— Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism was recently published by Encounter Books.