The Martian

Advanced Screening of The Martian

This afternoon I was fortunate enough to obtain a ticket to a NASA employee advanced screening of The Martian in the IMAX Theater at the KSC Visitor's Center. Not only did we get to see the movie before it officially comes out in theaters, but we also got to hear from a panel of experts about the reality of the technologies shown in the movie. The panel consisted of both NASA people and actors from the movie:

  • Jim Green (Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division)
  • Nicole Stott (NASA Astronaut)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (plays Vincent Kapoor, the Head of the NASA Mars Program in the movie)
  • Bob Cabana (NASA Astronaut and current Center Director of Kennedy Space Center)
  • Mackenzie Davis (plays Mindy Park in the movie)
  • Dave Lavery (the real Head of the NASA Mars Program)
  • We also had special quest in the audience with us, Buzz Aldrin

Having the Q&A panel before the screening of the movie set the stage so well for what we were about to see. Much of the movie demonstrates technologies that are required for a human mission to Mars and this panel pointed out that virtually everything in the movie is a REAL technology already in development by NASA. While The Martian may be science fiction, the world in which it takes place is in our very near future.

I also have a personal connection with this movie and some of the NASA events that have been announced this week. In the summer of 2010 I was working for Jim Green, the Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division at NASA HQ in Washington D.C. as part of a temporary rotational assignment. I was sitting in his office one afternoon helping to plan out a monthly review meeting for the division when a group of people rather hastily came into his office. They wanted to show him something amazing...photographic evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars! I can't begin to explain how exciting it was to be a part of that initial briefing about the first images from the Mars orbiting MRO spacecraft that showed what appeared to be evidence of recently flowing water on Mars. I had to stay quite about this information and after many months and then years passed I started to wonder if they would ever be able to confirm what those orbital images suggested. Then earlier this week the official announcement came out. You see, it takes time to confirm what is going on when you are 30 million miles away from the planetary surface you are trying so desperately to learn about. Real science from that distance takes time. This is also evident from the fact that it will be another year or more before we get all the data back from the very brief encounter that New Horizons had with Pluto earlier this summer. If we had people on the surface of Mars, what took us 5 years to confirm could have been accomplished in just a few minutes or a few hours. But as you will see when you watch The Martian, human space exploration is extremely complicated.

We live in an extremely exciting time. No, we aren't racing to the Moon like we were in the Apollo days but we are making very meaningful advances in both out scientific knowledge of our universe and in the technologies needed to explorer it further. I never could have imagined growing up as a kid that fell in love with astronomy and anything related to space that one day I would be working for NASA and sitting in the Director's office when the first evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars came in. The next big announcement I am waiting for is for us to find life in our Solar System, and I think we will find life right here in our little celestial neighborhood in my lifetime.

Of course, I have read the book The Martian and even posted a review right here on my blog. I highly recommend the book, whether you choose to read it before or after you see the movie.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Being that my career is in space exploration and even more specifically my long-term career goals involve the human exploration of Mars, it should come as no surprise that I have recently read a book titled "The Martian". The Martian is a sci-fi book written by Andy Weir. This is Andy Weir's first novel. Andy's background is in computer programming and software engineering, but he is also a self-proclaimed "space nerd" and lists relativistic physics, orbital mechanics and the history of manned spaceflight as hobbies...looks like Andy and I have a lot in common.

I don't normally read a lot of fiction. In fact, I have a hard time getting through books in general. By the time I crawl into bed at night I am so tired that even leaning over to turn off the bedside light can be too much, much less trying to pry my eyes open long enough to read a few chapters of a book. When I do read it tends to be long form articles on how to do something. Maybe I'm too practical, but reading just for the pure pleasure of it is something I don't do nearly often enough. So when I heard about The Martian I knew it was something I could really sink my teeth into.

Who is this book for?

Are you a space geek? Did you like watching the 80's TV series MacGyver? Ever wondered what it would be like working behind the scenes at NASA? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions then this book is for you. The book is written mostly in format of a personal journal of a man who has been accidentally left on Mars alone and is trying to figure out a way to survive long enough to be rescued so he can return to Earth. Many book reviews go into pretty great detail about the plot. I'm not going to do that. That one sentence is all you are going to get regarding the plot of this book, no spoilers here!

What makes this book so special?

This book stands apart from a lot of science fiction out there because of the combination of the extreme technical detail that is put into the plot to solve each problem the main character encounters and the raw human element (character) that is infused into the book. It is clear the author has a technical background and isn't afraid to use it! Andy also does a really good job of capturing the essence of what it takes to be an astronaut. I'm not saying that he has nailed the character of an astronaut in this book because he he didn't totally nail it (more on that later), but Andy has taken enough creative liberties with the personalities of the astronauts and painted the blurry line between their profession and their personal life very well. Having both personally worked with astronauts and worked in a spacecraft control center I can say that in general this is an accurate depiction of how things work. What is exaggerated is the personality of the astronauts, especially the main character, in the professional interactions. But this is not a negative thing, in fact this is what really makes this book work. If the professional interactions had been portrayed more accurately this would have been a much less entertaining book. That's not to say that astronauts don't have strong and quirky personalities...they do. But in general, when it comes to operations they keep it professional because lives are at stake. That being said, astronauts work hard and play even harder so the personalities that are brought out in the dialog I think do represent the type of demographic you would expect from an astronaut. Besides, the demographic of the astronaut core has changed considerably and I expect to change even more as time goes on. Also, to be fair, we have never been in a situation where we have stranded an astronaut on Mars. I think it's safe to say we don't really know how an astronaut would react to that situation. That's what I love about science fiction, you get to make up your own reality that hasn't happened yet.

Language. There is quite a bit of rough language in the book. Generally speaking this language is not used in the professional environments depicted in the book, but engineers and astronauts do have "potty mouths" and have been known to use them on occasion. If strong language bothers you then you may be turned off by this book. I liked it. I didn't think it was overly used and let's face it... If you thought you were going to die on Mars alone you would be muttering some cuss words to yourself. The book starts off with a few f-bombs on the 1st page. Just wanted readers to be aware in case that kind of thing bothers you.

The main reason this book is so spectacular is the engineering accuracy of the situations and the solutions described in the book. Like I said earlier, if you liked MacGyver you will absolutely love this book. There are times when the book can get almost too technical for someone just looking for an entertaining read, but overall I think Andy did an excellent job of walking the line between technical and entertaining. Granted my point of view is totally skewed. I am very curious how people without a technical background perceive the book. Based on the all the positive reviews I have heard on this book I would say Andy struck a really good balance, and that is a tough thing to do.

Verdict

This one is a winner. Ever wonder what would happen if you gave MacGyver a slightly rough edge to his personality and an arsenal of cuss words and left him stranded on Mars? Now you don't have too. Extremely entertaining all while capturing the essence of why all of us engineers got into engineering in the first place. Don't think twice about this book, just read it and enjoy!

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