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The Mrtian rover
Just as Mark Watney, the central character of the book and film The Martian, used this rover to make a long-distance trek across the surface of Mars, some Mars advocates hope the film helps power NASA’s own long-term plans to send humans there. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

The Martian and real Martians

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It’s a bit ironic that The Martian couldn’t quite escape gravity—or, rather, Gravity. The film, which debuted Friday in North America, earned $55 million in its opening weekend, ahead of predictions it would take in $45 million. That total just missed the record for the biggest opening weekend for a movie in October, set two years ago by another film about survival in space: Gravity (see “Gravity and reality”, The Space Review, October 7, 2013).

But for many space advocates, and even for NASA, The Martian is more than just a 140-minute sci-fi survival epic. They have hitched their dreams to the movie.

While both movies are about an astronaut’s struggle to survive in the harsh environment of space (a debris-strewn low Earth orbit in Gravity, the surface of Mars in The Martian), it’s The Martian that is seen as more uplifting. The movie closely follows the bestselling novel by Andy Weir (see “Review: The Martian”, The Space Review, February 17, 2014). Indeed, the movie arguably improves upon the book: it streamlines some of technical rigor, and plot twists, of the novel, and the A-list actors of the supporting cast give more life to characters who seemed underdeveloped in the novel. If you liked the book, you’ll like the movie; if you didn’t read—or were underwhelmed by—the novel, the movie may pleasantly surprise you.

But for many space advocates, and even for NASA, The Martian is more than just a 140-minute sci-fi survival epic. They have hitched their dreams to the movie, hoping that the public, after seeing a tale of a fictional Mars mission rooted strongly in hard science and engineering, will support NASA’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. In the months leading up to the film’s release, space advocates have made clear their desire to use the movie as a tool for advocacy and outreach (see “Harnessing The Martian”, The Space Review, August 17, 2015).

NASA, which cooperated with the film’s producers, hasn't been shy either about linking the fictional Mars exploration of the movie with NASA’s ongoing plans to send people there some time in the 2030s. NASA has been helping publicize the movie, and its plans, in a series of events at NASA centers that included both agency officials and actors from the movie. In one event at JPL, for example, Matt Damon, who plays the film’s central character, stranded astronaut Mark Watney, visited the “Mars yard” there used to test Mars rovers, and spoke by phone with astronauts on the International Space Station.

“We obviously are working very, very closely with 20th Century Fox on The Martian,” said Ashley Edwards, communications integration manager in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, during a panel session last week in Washington organized by the Explore Mars advocacy group and alumni of the International Space University. NASA, she noted, can’t explicitly do marketing, but it can leverage partnerships like that for the movie to educate.

One example she gave was the creation of a new section of the NASA website titled “The Real Martians.” That site highlights the people at NASA working on real Mars exploration plans, and the technologies that would make those missions possible. Edwards added that NASA would also do a “science fact versus science fiction” campaign to compare where the movie and reality may not match up, like the massive dust storms in the book and movie that, in reality, would be far less damaging.

“We can have a conversation about, ‘This is how it was portrayed in the movie, and that’s really cool, and this is what we are actually doing, right now, in our space program, to make that a reality,’” she said.

“We are going to Mars. Our ‘Journey to Mars’ is a science-led expedition right now, but soon, I hope, we’ll be sending humans to the Red Planet to explore,” Grunsfeld said.

Adding to the Mars exploration hoopla—or hype, depending on your point of view—last week was a discovery related to water on Mars. The fact that Mars has water is nothing new, to the point where it’s become a recurring joke among planetary scientists about the repeated rediscovery of it there. This discovery, though, provided the strongest, albeit indirect, evidence yet that liquid water does flow, at least temporarily, on the surface of Mars today.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet we have thought of in the past,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a press conference at NASA Headquarters. “Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars.”

Scientists believe that liquid water creates dark streaks known as recurring slope lineae, features seen on the sides of crater walls that appear to grow and darken in warm conditions. That water has not been directly detected, but spectroscopic observations of the streaks by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed the presence of hydrated perchlorate salts that form in the presence of liquid water.

Many scientists had suspected the streaks were linked to liquid water, “but we didn’t have any proof,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “There has been no evidence for water—until now.”

Like the movie, NASA used the Mars water discovery as a way to emphasize its human exploration plans as well. John Grunsfeld, the former NASA astronaut who is now the associate administrator for science at the agency, made a point of wearing his blue flight jacket to the press conference. “We are going to Mars. Our ‘Journey to Mars’ is a science-led expedition right now, but soon, I hope, we’ll be sending humans to the Red Planet to explore,” he said. The water discovery, he added, was another reason why NASA needed to send astrobiolgists and planetary scientists to Mars to see if Mars had, or has, life.

Grunsfeld argued later in the press conference that studying the recurring slope lineae (RSLs) up close might be a task best suited for astronauts, not rovers. “These RSLs, these streaks of briny water, are in challenging locations,” he said. “Some of these briny features are on very steep slopes and tough terrain. It would be trivial for an astronaut in a spacesuit to go up and investigate, but it’s very hard for a rover.”

At a hearing of the House Science Committee last Tuesday about astrobiology, Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, also emphasized the importance of sending humans to Mars to look for evidence of past or present life. “I think it’s going to take humans on the surface of Mars to really get at the definitive evidence, to study that liquid water,” she said in response to one question.

“Again, as a field geologist, somebody who likes to go out in the field and crack open rocks, I just have this strong bias that it’s going to take humans, laboratories, and a lot of work,” she said later, arguing that it would take “astronauts and laboratories on the surface of Mars” to definitively search for life there.

And to further heighten the excitement, the producers of The Martian used the water discovery in their own publicity about the movie. Within a few hours of the press conference, they released a short video mixing a clip from the press conference with one from the movie. They also released a video of Damon congratulating NASA on the discovery, offering a toast with, of course, a glass of water.

But does either development—new evidence for liquid water on Mars, or a Hollywood blockbuster—do much to advance the cause of humans to Mars? Despite the comments of Grunsfeld and Stofan, those RSLs might be off-limits to humans because of planetary protection concerns: that is, humans visiting them might contaminate them, threatening any primitive life that might exist there today.

“They’re able to emphasize the same story, but in a different way,” Merchant said of Hollywood. “By telling it wrapped up in an actual narrative—a ‘story story’ versus a news story—the public pays attention in a different way.”

Green, at the press conference, noted similar streaks have been seen on the slopes of Mount Sharp, the mountain inside Gale Crater at Curiosity is slowly ascending. Should those streaks turn out to be RSLs—something yet to be confirmed—it might render them off-limits to the rover, which was not sterilized to the levels needed to approach them without risking contamination.

If those streaks do turn out to be RSLs, “we have to make decisions on if Curiosity is really good enough to be able to go over to that area and make appropriate measurements without it measuring us,” Green said.

While the water finding might have given a boost to the publicity for the movie (the timing of which raised some questions, although the announcement was in fact linked to the publication of a journal article and a presentation at the European Planetary Science Conference last week in France), it’s less clear if the movie will do much to boost NASA’s Mars exploration efforts. Some have been skeptical that the movie will do much for that: Gravity, after all, didn’t lead to new efforts to address orbital debris concerns, and there hasn’t been a surge in research on wormholes since last year’s release of Interstellar (see The Martian message”, The Space Review, August 31, 2015).

And while NASA is linking both the water discovery and the movie to its long-term exploration plans, those plans themselves remain in their early stages. NASA has offered few details about exactly how humans would get to Mars in the 2030s, and said that decisions on many of the technical details of such a mission are years away. Instead, NASA has focused on the broad strategy, its “Journey to Mars” that emphasizes doing missions in the “proving ground” of cislunar space in the 2020s to build up experience before going to Mars in the following decade.

NASA will soon offer some more details about that strategy, but not its mission architecture, soon. The agency is about to release a report titled “Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration” that will, officials believe, better explain its strategy.

“We’re trying to capture our strategy from a NASA perspective,” said Greg Williams, NASA deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, of the report during a panel last month at the AIAA Space 2015 conference in Pasadena. At the time, that report was due out in mid-September, but NASA now says the report should be out early this month.

One scientific discovery, or one movie, on its own likely can’t win the critical mass of public support needed to ensure NASA can implement its humans-to-Mars plans—support that, in any event, will have to be sustained for decades. However, they can’t hurt, either. “There are large swaths of the public that don’t pay attention to the traditional media,” said Ann Merchant, deputy executive director of the office of communications of the National Academies and one of the managers of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an effort to link entertainment professionals with scientists.

Merchant said that, for example, TV and film producers will likely incorporate the Mars water discovery to storylines about Mars exploration. “They’re able to emphasize the same story, but in a different way,” she said at last week’s Explore Mars/ISU panel. “By telling it wrapped up in an actual narrative—a ‘story story’ versus a news story—the public pays attention in a different way.”

Whether that public attention, sustained through scientific discoveries or fictional accounts, will make a difference may face its biggest test in less than two years. Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, said at last week’s panel that while he was confident that NASA was on the right track technically in its Mars exploration plans, a bigger concern is what happens when a new administration takes office after the 2016 Presidential election—seeking, perhaps, to put its own stamp on space exploration.

“We are at a critical moment right now,” he said. “We really need to get to the next administration and not have them hit the reset button.”