By MARSHA MERCER
To escape our earthly troubles, Americans are going to the movies to see plucky fictional astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, struggle with problems that are, well, out of this world.
A box office bonanza for all the right reasons, “The Martian” is an entertaining adventure film that’s funny and thought-provoking. No matter how bad our days are, we’ve never been left for dead by our colleagues on a hostile planet millions of miles from Earth.
To set the stage: Watney gets stranded when a storm prompts the crew to make an emergency departure for Earth. He’s the only human and the only living creature on the entire planet. His supply of astronaut food will last only a couple of months, but a rescue, if it comes at all, will take years. To survive, he needs air, water and food in a barren world – and therein lies a tale.
The story is futuristic science fiction, but the movie bathes us in 1950s’ sensibilities. Wearing our 3D glasses, we bask in the glow of pride for Watney’s relentless determination and can-do spirit. He never falls into self-pity or depression.
“I’m going to have to science the (bleep) out of this,” he says cheerfully, in one of the movie’s most-quoted lines.
With so much going wrong, just about the only thing he complains about is the disco music the mission’s commander left behind. Oh, and when he runs out of ketchup. What a great American.
“The Martian” sends the message that smart is cool. Working hard is cool. Never giving up is not only cool but a matter of life and death. When was a botanist a cinematic hero -- or growing potatoes a major feat?
As we root for Watney and his ingenuity, we admire the dedication of his fellow crew members and NASA’s tireless staff. The country and the world rally around him. In the movie version of America, people work together, united in a cause greater than themselves. Even China wants to be helpful.
The real-life story of the novel on which the movie is based could itself be a movie. Software engineer Andy Weir wrote “The Martian” as a serial in 2009, posting the novel chapter by chapter on his blog. Readers asked for the book in one piece, and he put it on Amazon for 99 cents. It became a cult classic, Random House approached and “The Martian” hit the bestseller lists. Hollywood came calling. Fairy tales can come true.
Reports of salty water on Mars stir our imaginations, and “The Martian” could help NASA gin up support for a Mars mission in an era of flat budgets. When we sent a man to the moon in the 1960s, NASA’s budget peaked at 4.5 percent of federal spending; it’s less than half of 1 percent now.
Without more money, the Mars mission is grounded. The Obama administration is working on a Space Launch System and Orion manned crew vehicle, but NASA’s latest “Journey to Mars” report released Oct. 8 contained no budget, schedule or deadlines.
“It’s just some real pretty photographs and some nice words,” complained Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., chairman of the House Science Committee at a hearing. “A journey to nowhere,” he said.
While there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for deep-space exploration, presidents come with different visions. President George W. Bush called for a lunar mission by 2020 leading to a trip to Mars. Barack Obama dropped the moon mission when it fell behind schedule in favor of an asteroid mission first, pushing back a crewed mission to orbit Mars to the mid-2030s.
In 1962, at the dawn of the Space Age, President John F. Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
The atmosphere in Washington is too political and too toxic to expect much of anything soon. But the next president should galvanize the public and Congress behind the robust goal of a crewed mission to Mars with a date, budget and deadlines.
The space program has been a technological and emotional boon for generations of Americans and can be again.
We need the shared national purpose and pride of reaching for the stars in real life – and not just at the movies.
(C) Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.