“The Martian:” Yeah, Martian dust storms are nothing. Yeah, Rich Purnell could’ve explained his maneuver to the NASA top brass with about six acronyms and the phrase “gravity assist.” Yeah, real-life-JPL has almost nothing to do with human space exploration. And yeah, that blow-up-the-Hermes thing is a completely harebrained and terrible idea.
I’ll give the movie a pass on all those counts, because it’s a good story, it gets most things right, and it puts technical problem-solving front and center. But here’s what really drives me nuts about “The Martian:”
“The Martian” highlights what NASA must do, but is not doing, in order to get people to Mars.
NASA must build interplanetary transfer craft optimized for deep-space travel, like the Hermes, not single-use capsules designed mostly for reentering Earth’s atmosphere like Orion.
NASA must invest significant research and development effort into “in-situ resource utilization,” such as the robotic manufacture of the fuels and propellants the MAV uses for Mars ascent.
NASA must develop closed-loop life support systems, like Mark Watney has in the water reclaimer and the oxygenator.
NASA must learn to grow food on Mars, instead of trying to send every supply with their astronauts in a single mission.
NASA must build vehicles that provide their crew with artificial gravity, by rotating, to counteract the bone loss effects of long-duration spaceflight.
NASA must learn to let its astronauts solve their own problems when they are twenty light-minutes away from Mission Control.
Most of all, NASA must try a lot of ideas, and they must be willing to see some of those ideas fail, in order to accomplish their ultimate goals.
Right now, NASA’s plans for getting people to Mars revolve around a series of activities designed to “learn how to live and work in space.” These activities include astronaut Scott Kelly’s hashtag-YearInSpace mission and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
Commander Kelly’s mission has the goal of learning how the human body responds to a long duration spaceflight. At the end of his mission, Kelly will be tied for the fifth-longest duration spaceflight. We already have much experience with long spaceflights. Our friends in Russia have even more. So we already know pretty much everything that’s going to happen to him. What’s more, we know ways to mitigate those adverse effects. We need, for example, something to simulate gravity. Like a spacecraft with a centrifuge. That’s a solution science fiction – including “The Martian” – has taken for granted for decades, though NASA has no obvious plans to build true long-duration space vehicles for its crews. They will go to Mars floating in the cramped zero-g environs of an Orion capsule.
NASA also isn’t looking seriously at growing food to keep their crews fed in space. At a conference last March, I learned that all the Mars exploration reference missions involve taking all the food the crew needs for their entire travel, exploration, and return mission. That takes a huge amount of payload mass. Mark Watney did a much better job – and saved a lot of weight – by turning a few potatoes into food for a year. He got fresh vegetables, something his colleagues on the Hermes didn’t even have. Rover data shows that plants could grow on Mars, and creating a spacefaring civilization obviously depends on our ability to feed astronauts – so, again, why not look at the obvious solutions?
The big idea that “The Martian” demonstrates is human ingenuity and problem-solving. To NASA, though, that’s a problem. NASA doesn’t want astronauts tearing components apart and putting them back together like Mark Watney does. They want to have astronauts follow a checklist that has been tested, verified, and validated on the ground in several dozen ways. That philosophy is so pervasive in NASA that agency officials talk about how they need the Asteroid Redirect Mission to “test” solar-electric propulsion – a technology that NASA itself has been using in flight missions since 1998. If NASA really wants to go to Mars, it’s going to have to learn to be more like “The Martian:” being willing to take risks, try new ideas, and give its astronauts leeway to make decisions.
That’s what drives me nuts about “The Martian.” It depicts the space program that I’ve been hungering for for thirty years…and I’m afraid I won’t see such a thing for thirty more, at least.