15 September 2015

What will it take to get us to Mars?

A novel and an upcoming movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars may have injected a considerable dose of momentum into actually making a manned Mars mission happen.

It's confession time. I am a massive fan of space. OK, anyone who knows me is not surprised by this. I was in utero when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface; as a youngster my bedroom walls were adorned with posters of the Apollo crews, shuttles, landers and planets, and I read everything I could get my hands on. My child-like view was one of optimism and progress. I devoured books by Arthur C Clarke, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov - I was sure that humanity's future lay off-Earth, and that there was something indomitable about the human spirit that would take us to the stars.

Now in my 40s I am thrilled that humans are living continuously in space; I still regard myself as fortunate that at least some humans were on the Moon in my lifetime, but I feel that we should still be there, and we should have moved beyond the Earth-Moon system to Mars and the asteroids - that's where all the fun took place in those books I read. And the fun wasn't unalloyed - it came mixed with danger, tragedy, terror (sometimes including aliens, but let's set them aside for now) - it represented adventure in its truest sense. 2001 came and went, and we don't have anyone orbiting Jupiter. Gerard K O'Neill's mighty space colonies remain unrealised. We send our robots to the planets and to comets, and they send back stunning pictures of worlds that are diverse, dangerous, exciting and beautiful. And we want to go there.

Andy Weir's best-selling novel "The Martian" is something new. Or maybe it isn't. It's an awesomely intelligent thriller, where our hero Mark Watney is an astronaut stranded on Mars, while his departed crewmates and the people of Earth think he is dead. Mars turns out to be a somewhat challenging planet to stay alive on, and, while he waits for the next planned mission in four years, Watney has to cobble together his meagre resources to survive. As he says, "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this."

And science the shit he (literally) does, growing potatoes in his poo, among other things. He has to get rovers and radios working, make water, conserve oxygen, repair his habitat - all the normal stuff for a smallholder on Mars. He also has to figure out how to communicate with Earth to see if there is any way he can be rescued, or work out whether he is doomed to die (properly this time) on a desolate frozen planet that seems intelligently designed to kill him.

The book is pacey and exciting; it's well written in that it avoids overloaded prose, and in some ways doesn't paint pictures of the Martian landscape, other than treating it as a practical hazard. This turns out to be a good thing - by now we have grown used to the incredible photos beamed back from the superbly successful rovers Spirit, Opportunity and more recently Curiosity. We know Mars is beautiful and terrible, and we don't need Andy to waste too much paper telling us that - tell us how Watney is going to solve his problems, dammit! And this he does in full-on geek style.

This works. At least, it works for geeks like me. The Martian has been called Macgyver on Mars, and that is pretty apt. But I think that here we have something more significant than that. I'm even going to stick my neck out and suggest that The Martian may end up being a work of enormous significance. For one thing, it is an unashamed blast of geekery that takes us right back to the giants of sci fi before things started getting all mushy and sentimental, before psychology and even paranormal nonsense started polluting our clear positivist stream.What we have here is a hero. A geek like us geeks. He doesn't give up, he uses this brain that evolution has worked so hard to give us, to stay alive, and the whole of Planet Earth sees itself in him and is rooting for him.

In this book, there are no bad guys - there are some bad decisions, but everyone is at heart decent. The bad guy is Mars, but even then, that's just Mars being Mars. It's good clean heroism, good clean fun, and has come at a time when people need to be thrilled; we need to look up at the night sky and see our home. What is going to get us there is precisely the sort of attitude that suffuses The Martian.

In a few short weeks, Ridley Scott's film of The Martian will hit the screens, with Matt Damon playing our hero (and he's a hero, OK? That's the point). The trailers have me hooked already, even though I've read the book. And the preliminary reviews have been very favourable. This is all to the good - there have been some real stinkers of Mars movies in past years, and something that can capture the spirit and power of Andy Weir's book will surely help inspire the generation that ultimately will make that voyage. NASA has laid the roadmap for the "Journey to Mars", but the most perilous parts of that journey lie in getting funding through Congress and winning resource from international partners. This will have to be a journey that Planet Earth undertakes, not just one country.

The privately funded, and still very much Earth-bound, Mars One Project plans (at least on paper) to establish a human base on Mars in the 2020s using funding from media buy-in and angel investment. So far there is deep scepticism among many that such a project can work, and, despite my positivist nature, I don't see how they can raise the cash to make it viable. But with The Martian, book and movie, the Red Planet is going to get a lot of exposure. Elon Musk, he of Space-X, Tesla and Solar City, has said that he wants to die on Mars - just not on impact. Maybe Bas Lansdorp from the Mars One was right. Maybe the way to build the impetus to actually land humans on the Red Planet is, to paraphrase Mark Watney, to media the shit out of this.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another entertaining read, Shane. I can go one better than you with regard to timing of birth. I was born three months before the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, and so my life spans the entire period of space exploration. The Mercury and Gemini programmes passed me by unnoticed, but I really got hooked from Apollo 8 onwards, and stayed up all night to watch the Apollo 11 crew walk on the moon. I still remember the little details. Armstrong was describing the moon's surface and said, 'the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe.' The next day the Belfast Telegraph provided a transcript of the crackly conversation and translated this as, '...it looks like powdered dough.'

    Anyway, I must get a copy of that book.