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Martian Factors

October 30, 2015

This Autumn saw the release of Ridley Scott’s best film for a very, very, very long time. The Martian, based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir and possibly the hardest of hard-science ever put on film is very different from the pompous and nonsensical Prometheus and I loved both the film and the book. However, while following the media circus surrounding the film I have to admit that I was surprised at the almost universal, uncritical display of faith in NASA’s commitment to dashing heroics in times of crisis.

In his interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo, Director Ridley Scott seemed to be unswervingly of the impression that, should an astronaut be left stranded on an alien world, NASA would surely leap into action at once with a cunningly-devised rescue mission and spare no expense to bring said astronaut home safely. The same “can-do” attitude displayed by NASA in the film is considered key to it’s success by writer Simon Ings in his New Scientist review.

As much as I loved Andy Weir’s book and Ridley Scott’s film, the problem with this aspect of both the book and the film is that NASA has an exceedingly patchy record in this respect.

We’re all familiar with the efforts expended by NASA bods to bring back the crew of Apollo 13 but despite employing some of the cleverest boffins in all boffindom, NASA’s management have, on two notable and well-documented occasions, ignored the advice of their boffins and adopted a la-la-la-everything-will-be-fine style of crisis management that involved nothing more complex than crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.

In the same way that they had been warned repeatedly of the potential for the accident that subsequently destroyed Challenger, NASA management were also warned of the possibility that Columbia might have been damaged on take-off. In the case of Columbia, rather than warn the crew, investigate the damage and prepare a daring orbital rescue of the crew on board, they took the decision to assume that everything was hunky-dory until the fireball streaking across the sky suggested that it wasn’t.

This glaring mismatch between NASA’s reputation as gaffer-tape-weilding improvisers extraordinaire (reinforced by films like Apollo 13 and The Martian) and the reality of their mishandling of genuine crises did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, nor the film, but it does reinforce to me one crucial thing about both: no matter how hard the science, they are both works of fiction.

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