Ridley Scott’s interplanetary drama The Martian has already attracted comparisons to 2013’s hit Gravity, with the former film currently being watched closely to see if it can surpass the latter’s box office success. The comparisons aren’t arbitrary; both films feature an astronaut stranded in space with seemingly no hope of survival, and both walk a strange line between between science fiction and science fact, since they largely only show technology that already exists (scientific inaccuracies notwithstanding).
Where Gravity‘s protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is left with nothing but her own will to survive and the help of George Clooney, The Martian‘s Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has NASA spending millions of dollars and throwing every ounce of brain power that they have into bringing him home alive. Indeed, between the number of times that the NASA logo appears and the portrayal of the space agency as flawed but ultimately compassionate and heroic, The Martian makes for profoundly effective pro-NASA publicity.
The Martian is also a near-faultless example of pro-science messaging. Whereas many sci-fi movies eschew realism in favor of plot convenience – whether it’s loud, fiery explosions in the vacuum of space or aliens using Windows-compatible operating systems in their spaceships – The Martian takes gleeful pleasure in the business of scientific problem-solving. Mars is brimming with environmental factors that could easily kill poor Mark Watney: lack of food, lack of water, lack of oxygen, lack of atmospheric pressure, extreme temperatures and potentially lethal levels of radiation, to name just a few. Does Mark give up and die? No, in the words of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) he works the problem. And like a cool high school science teacher, Mark lays out all of his survival methods first in technical terms, and then in layman’s terms, so that the audience is simultaneously educated and entertained.
The film also reignites the spirit of exploration, as Mark rapidly hits a series of firsts: the first person to ever be completely alone on a planet; the first person to grow food on Mars; the first known space pirate (he calls himself Captain Blondbeard). It isn’t a true story, but it feels like one, and it’s all the more tantalizing because something like this could happen within our lifetime. In short, The Martian is a $100 million commercial for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
Already The Martian has enjoyed a strong start at the box office and a wide swathe of positive reviews, and it has also reignited chatter about the real-life possibility of putting the first human footprint on Mars. NASA announced the discovery of flowing water on Mars just a few days prior to The Martian‘s theatrical release, and while the space agency insists that this timing was pure coincidence, it’s a coincidence that fits neatly into a long-term pattern of collaboration between NASA and Hollywood.
It’s not all about money. Speaking in an interview with The Takeaway, NASA’s multimedia liaison Bert Ulrich explained that part of the space agency’s mandate is to ensure that the knowledge gathered through its exploration and study of space reaches as many people as possible, and offering consultation on movies like The Martian is part of that. Moreover, he believes that Hollywood science fiction movies can help inspire the next generation of NASA employees.
“I think there’s a real interest to really take advantage of this wonderful opportunity that this movie’s out there, to really tell people what Mars exploration is all about in reality at NASA. I mean, the film is all about NASA. When you ask people that work at NASA – be it an astronaut, a scientist, an engineer or whatever – often you hear them say that the reason they pursued the careers that they are in now was because of, you know, a Star Trek episode or 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars.”
NASA has provided consultation for sci-fi movies before, Men in Black III being just one recent example, but the level of involvement that the agency had with The Martian was unusual. Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told THR that he had hours-long phone calls with Scott, answered “hundreds of questions,” and arranged for production designer Arthur Max to take an eight-hour tour of the Johnson Space Center, during which he took thousands of pictures. NASA also sent the production team “hundreds of files of real images of Mars and images of control centers, down to what the computer screens look like.” When the film was completed, it was screened on board the International Space Station before it made it into Earth theaters. It’s a powerful collaboration and a great PR stunt, but what – if anything – could it mean for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program?
In the Mark Watney spirit of putting things simply, sending people into space is expensive. It’s really, really, really expensive. To launch a single space shuttle costs $450 million – around twice the cost of producing and marketing The Martian – and that’s just what it costs to launch a shuttle into low-Earth orbit. The cost and risks involved in sending a manned mission to Mars would be far greater, and masses of research and development still needs to take place before NASA can get to the point where that mission is ready to launch. Moreover, unlike 20th Century Fox, NASA will never make a profit on that investment.
There lies the real barrier to The Martian having an effect on NASA’s budget. The space agency is not a private company, wherein good publicity would lead to more sales and more profit. Its funding comes from the United States government, and only the President and Congress can decide how much money NASA has to spend on Mars exploration. The last time that the space agency received a dramatic peak in funding was during the 1960s, when America was caught up in a fever pitch of competition with Soviet Russia. A sci-fi movie, even a successful one, really can’t compete with a Cold War in terms of political capital.
For comparison’s sake, in 1966 NASA received 4.41% of the total federal budget. In 2013, the space agency’s funding constituted less than half a percent of the federal budget. The version of NASA depicted in The Martian is relatively affluent, but the scenes of engineers frantically making cuts and working exhausting hours to meet impossible deadlines seems an apt representation of NASA’s current scramble to squeeze every last penny out of its diminished budget.
While NASA is taking every opportunity to provide an optimistic outlook on space exploration – everything from publishing a treasure trove of photos from Apollo missions to this latest announcement of flowing water being discovered on the red planet – John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, gave a more pragmatic view of the Mars Exploration Program in an interview with the Washington Post.
“Preparing for humans-to-Mars is the rationale for NASA’s human spaceflight program. So in order to have the public support needed to sustain the program, they fall into the long-established pattern of overselling… The issue is whether the next president provides the start-up funding for the next pieces of hardware that are required to do this. And at what point do we stop spending $3 billion a year on the [International] Space Station?”
The lack of money really is what is holding NASA back from Mars exploration. In 1980, TIME reported that a Martian landing could be achievable by 1986, with the proper funding. In 1990 Bruce Murray, the former head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimated that under the Bush Administration’s Space Exploration Initiative a manned Mars landing could take place by 2019. Currently, NASA’s goal is to put humans on Mars by the end of the 2030s, but without an increase in funding, it’s easy to imagine that target timeframe slipping away just as the previous ones did.
It’s easy to say, “Just give NASA more money,” but NASA is a federally funded agency and that money needs to come from somewhere – whether it’s increased taxes or reallocation of funds from the military, healthcare, or education. Unless there’s a drastic change in the political climate similar to that of the 20th century Space Race, the problem to solve won’t be bringing Mark Watney home from Mars, but getting him there in the first place.
MORE: The Martian Movie Review
The Martian is in theaters now.