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The Martian
The film version of The Martian, starring Matt Damon, is one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2015. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

Harnessing The Martian


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On October 2, the film adaptation of Andrew Weir’s bestselling novel, The Martian, will be debuting in theaters around the country. This film version, through the recent release of its theatrical trailer, has already created a great deal of excitement in the space community, but the feature movie will soon provide a tremendous opportunity—particularly to space advocates—to extend that excitement to the general population and to engage broad public support for sending human missions to Mars in the near future.

If space advocates are successful in harnessing the excitement surrounding The Martian—showing that this type of mission is an achievable goal in the next two decades—it can have a real impact on advancing this goal.

The space advocacy community has tried valiantly to promote that goal through other recent films, such as Interstellar and Gravity. However, while those films were certainly entertaining, neither one aligned very well with our space exploration aspirations. Interstellar was based on a purely science fiction premise, and the motivation in that movie for travel to other star systems was calamity on Earth. In contrast, Gravity was based on more current scenarios. It did, for example, have wonderful depictions of the International Space Station (before, in the movie, the station was unceremoniously destroyed.) However, one of the most memorable lines in Gravity was, “I hate space,” which is not a statement that lends itself to helping to embrace space exploration as an imperative or as humanity’s destiny. As entertainment, both films have merit, but it would be a stretch to regard either one as being a net positive film for advancing space exploration.

Granted, when one begins to read The Martian, one can not help but be struck by the fact that the very first line is the quite unexpected and off-color statement, “I’m pretty much fu#@ed.” But that first line sets the tone and the stage for an epic story of human endurance and ingenuity. It is a work of science fiction, but it is so close to current reality that The Martian represents a truly achievable future within our lifetimes. As such, The Martian is tailor made to be a rallying cry for the space community for our nation to achieve what is today official US space policy: the landing of humans on Mars.

If space advocates are successful in harnessing the excitement surrounding The Martian—showing that this type of mission is an achievable goal in the next two decades—it can have a real impact on advancing this goal. Indeed, the movie will be released at a very fortuitous time, because it will be when Presidential candidates are developing their policy stances. We shouldn’t expect a new “Kennedy moment” from the next President, but we do need a supportive President who is willing and able to put her/his mark on this future. That mark should not be by hitting a “reset button” on the direction of the space program, but rather by taking the investment and advances we have already made and challenging NASA, industry, and commercial players, and our international partners, to provide a clear plan to land humans on Mars. This is also one of the few issues that is not embroiled in partisan politics, nor is it a budget buster. It would, instead, be an enormous opportunity for the next President and the next Congress, on both sides of the political aisle, to work together for the common good.

How can the space community utilize The Martian as part of a highly effective campaign to advance human exploration on Mars?

Op-eds and letters to the editor: Print and online publications are more likely to publish op-eds when they relate to current news stories. The Martian provides an unusual opportunity for space advocates to write opinion pieces connecting the film to our real space exploration goals. By doing so, we can create a significant national discussion about the viability of human missions to Mars.

TV and radio: The media will be looking for expert commentary from people knowledgeable about space exploration. When the film is released, the space community should reach out to local media and offer to provide commentary.

Political Outreach: We should all seize this opportunity to reach out to Congress and to the Presidential campaigns to highlight and emphasize that the premise of The Martian is not science fiction. It is an achievable goal that they can have a pivotal impact on over the next few years.

It is a rarity that Hollywood and the space community are in such perfect alignment, so it would be a tremendous waste if we allowed this movie to come and go without engaging in a concerted effort to harness the buzz generated by The Martian.

Viewing events and programs: Members of the space community should arrange formal and informal events when the film is released. These would include viewing events with your friends or your organization (if you have a large enough group, rent a theater). Panel discussions should also be arranged to discuss how realistic The Martian is and how well it depicts probable human missions to Mars that, however, will hopefully never have to test the ingenuity of any real-life astronauts anywhere near to the extent that Mark Watney’s was tested.

Social media: The release of The Martian will also provide an unprecedented opportunity to engage the power of discussions on social media. Anyone viewing The Martian should tweet about it and post on other social media platforms.

It is a rarity that Hollywood and the space community are in such perfect alignment, so it would be a tremendous waste if we allowed this movie to come and go without engaging in a concerted effort to harness the buzz generated by The Martian. It will take the passion, efforts, and dedication of as many people and organizations as possible to be successful, but if we are to get to Mars, it is a campaign that must be waged.


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