Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Martian and much more

Well, I finally saw The Martian, and, as someone who devoured the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's hard to make a movie like this, where one character has three-fourths of the screen time: the actor has to be perfect. Fortunately, Matt Damon was exactly right for Mark Watney. The movie's many omissions compared to the book were generally well-chosen, given that so much material had to be edited out, There were only a couple of oddities (Wouldn't his first question to NASA have been "Is the crew alive?" Wouldn't NASA have brought his parents in once communication was established?).
Unlike most space films, there are no imperious bureaucrats on Earth: Jeff Daniels as the NASA Administrator has to make hard choices and does his best.  My favorite moment, though, is when he decides not to risk a rescue because the program is bigger than one person: the Mars mission  chief says, "No, it's not."  Exploration is still about PEOPLE.
The astronauts and the rest of the cast are multiethnic and international,but a crew voting without hesitation to extend their voyage and risk their lives to get Watney back is a distinctly American film moment. Not that people in every nation don't risk their lives for each other - they certainly do - but the willingness to  do so in this fashion appears throughout American culture and history, be it fact or fiction, until it became rarer in in our cynical age. Shoot me if you want to, I liked seeing the archetype's return.
The science is sound, although the explanations are necessarily brief. The rendezvous at the end has a vanishingly small chance of working, but this is a movie that earns its triumphant ending.The whole cast is great and the NASA dynamics as believable as Watney's gardening.    (I knew the hydrazine bit wouldn't end well, but... well, you have to see it for yourself.)
NASA, not surprisingly, loves the film.  A search on www.nasa.gov for "Watney" (I figured that was the most distinct single term) turns up a couple of dozen hits - mostly images, but with some good articles and clips, including Damon talking to NASA people about making the film. You can even follow Watney's journey on the surface on the MarsTrek portal. (Although it's perturbing to see what's on NASA's main site about growing plants on Mars like in the movie - a single image (seriously, that's IT) with a link to a YouTube video of plant growth on the ISS.)  I'd give the movie 4.5 out of 5 stars, and a bit lower grade to how well NASA's capitalized on it.

The Bagnold Dunes of Mars (NASA)

It's a heck of a time to be in space, especially in the United States. You could write a scorecard for this past wee..
 - United Launch Alliance announces it will give free launches to student CubeSats. Access to space has been the only thing holding back even wider use of the most popular "form factor" ever for satellites.
 - SpaceX and Beoing received contracts to carry astronauts to the ISS. This will be the first time contractors directly launch US astronauts, although all crewed rockets have been built and operated with contractor assistance.
 - Blue Origin successfully tests its reusable suborbital rocket. The instrumented capsule came down on parachutes while the rocket state landed safely.
 - Elon Musk, who I admire, does a weird Twitter bit putting down Blue Origin.

Not a bad week at all.

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