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What 'The Martian' gets right (and wrong) about space exploration

What 'The Martian' gets right (and wrong) about space exploration

Hollywood sci-fi epic The Martian, which opened in cinemas yesterday, is a gripping, solid piece of cinema with some realistic grounding in science and spaceflight. True, there are convenient scientific omissions, but overall this film is closer to the truth than most space movies. I recommend it for audiences young and old.

Apart from showing the risks and adventure of spaceflight, are there any lessons in this epic story?

The overarching one is that a human expedition to Mars would be complex, long and dangerous. It would eclipse anything previously attempted in spaceflight, and possibly in the history of engineering. Together with the enormous cost (don't trust any estimates), these technical factors explain why no humans have ever gone to the red planet. Given the current state of the global economy, Mars will probably remain unvisited for a very long time.

The film's Mars mission is international, but not exactly representative of the planet as a whole. It's basically a US-European partnership. International co-operation seems inevitable for any future human Mars projects, if only to defray the huge costs. A precursor for this is the International Space Station, which includes the US, Canada, the European Space Agency, Japan and Russia.

There's no talk of Russian spaceflight in this movie at all, but the movie does acknowledge the growing strength of China in spaceflight. I won't give away plot spoilers, but the issues of overcoming suspicion to produce co-operation between the US and China in space is a thorny issue in real spaceflight. US Congressional opposition to China's inclusion in NASA projects is legendary. So is the climate of secrecy surrounding China's big space plans, which seems to be getting worse under the leadership of Xi Jinping. [fold]

One issue in the movie that should not be ignored is the influence of spin doctoring on the disclosure of information and even the planning of missions. This is a growing problem for NASA, which recently 'overspun' an announcement of the discovery of liquid water on Mars. This space analyst turned film reviewer has spent a lot of time in media interviews this week to put NASA's grandiose claims about Mars and exoplanets into perspective. NASA itself is in something of a crisis, unable to launch astronauts into orbit, let alone send them to Mars. Politics and porkbarrelling are derailing the human spaceflight program, which seems poised for a bleak future when the International Space Station is decommissioned in about a decade.

So, enjoy the movie. It captures the spirit of spaceflight well. It also reminds us that spaceflight appeals to higher goals and some of the bigger questions about life itself, not only about life beyond earth but about our own lives and our place in this wonderful universe.

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