Steve W design

Why The Martian May Be More Than A Thriller

I started reading Andy Weir's 'The Martian" shortly after he self-published it, from chapters on his blog.  At the time, he was still working as a code monkey without a literary agent, let alone a movie deal. Two chapters in, I called my son to urge him to read the book right away. I knew that the combination of dark humor and hard science was right up his alley.

So it was with some trepidation that Max and I saw 'The Martian' on opening night. The chances of ruining a complex thriller was high. Also, director Ridley Scott would need to redeem himself after the terrible 'Prometheus' he perpetrated.

Ninety percent of the novel is a soliloquy of a desperate, marooned astronaut trying to think his way out of certain death, alone on Mars. (The film was beautifully filmed in the wastes of Jordan). The months of complex problem solving and nuances of his emotional swings cannot be filmed adequately. Yet The Martian manages to convey the story reliably, except for applying a dose of steroids to the nail-biting rescue. Matt Damon, according to Weir, struck the right balance of smart scientist and black humor. Ridley Scott directed capably, and is allowed back into the clubhouse.

The Martian is an entertaining thriller, and it kept me in suspense, although I knew the story well. More important, I think, is the possibility that the movie may inspire young people to learn more about the science of space travel.

Astronaut Mark Watney survives because he acts like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Thomas Edison. In other words, he needs to think like a space explorer. The Martian has no laser guns or time travel. Robots do no heavy lifting, and there is no 'Force' to keep you alive. Instead, the marooned man must solve his problem with his mind, his hands, and the help of smart young scientists back home. He needs to think his way out of a frozen grave on Mars.

This week, scientists reported that Mars may have flowing water. If true, this means a tremendous shortcut to space exploration has opened up. The just-received high-res photos of Pluto's moon are beautiful, and beckoning. We are on the verge of something great.

There are some who feel that money spent on exploration would be better spent subsidizing  other projects, and that the quest for knowledge about our universe is ill-advised. These people are wrong. To deny exploration is to deny the growth of knowledge, and the need to advance. It is to deny what it means to be human.

No one spends as much on space exploration as NASA, and NASA spends almost nothing. Cornell University reports that NASA uses 0.8% of the government budget. By contrast, 8.0% is used to service the national debt. So little is spent on exploration, that we will depend ever more on private contractors to put equipment and people into space. This may be a good thing.

But it all means little without young scientists and explorers who dream of a better future. I hope movies like this serve to promote those dreams, and continue to perpetuate our sense of wonder.