Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

Jenna Sutela: Mars in a dish

Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Jenna Sutela’s mentor on this project, Memo Atkin, has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”

Watching Jenna Sutela’s art-video nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

“I love what I do and I’m really good at it”

martian

No matter how far he runs, Matt Damon cannot escape the attentions of New Scientist

 

Towards the end of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, marooned NASA astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) says goodbye to the habitat that has kept him alive for more than 500 days. As he enters the airlock to leave, he pauses, turns – and there, on a table, is his space helmet. Sourly, he snatches it up: he has nearly gone and killed himself again.

Set about 30 years in the future, The Martian tells the story of how Watney survives at the very cusp of death, at which every trivial error, every moment of forgetfulness, will kill him in about 35 seconds. Jeopardy is the stuff of adventure movies. What makes all this different is its remarkable lack of interest in what jeopardy feels like “inside”, and its loving depiction of how people should deal with it.

Before he shot his last scene at the Korda Filmpark, outside Budapest in Hungary, CultureLab caught up with Damon, who was tasked with conveying what it would be like to survive for 18 months only on potatoes grown in your own faeces. He explained: “Ridley and I agreed The Martian is not one of those existential survival movies. Neither is it just a popcorn kind of whizz-bang, he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience. The key is to have the audience feel the enormity without it seeming ponderous. And it has to be funny, because Watney and his colleagues are capable of doing really dangerous things and having a good sense of humour about them.”

No wonder NASA got behind the film: its tale of the administration’s daring, unsanctioned bid to rescue one of their own gives every department a hero. But where The Martian gets interesting is in its refusal to take heroism at face value. Watney survives because he is smart and knowledgeable, can get by without company and likes the sound of his own voice; and because coming up with a strong, snarky one-liner can make his whole day. He survives because, as he says in a message meant for his parents, “I love what I do and I’m really good at it.”

This distillation of NASA’s philosophy is endorsed by Ellen Ochoa, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who praised Weir’s book for encapsulating aspects of mission training. “It is a very realistic scenario of what we go through when we train crew members and flight controllers, who must quickly analyse a situation and prioritise tasks,” she said. She added that resilience is “probably the single most important characteristic to have as an explorer, and Watney proves to be extraordinarily resilient”.

The film’s whole approach favours accuracy over visual bombast. Less spectacular than Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and a lot less silly than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), The Martian has exploited NASA’s enthusiasm well, conjuring up habitats, spacesuits, spacecraft and launch vehicles that carry its stamp of approval.

Is The Martian a nerd thriller? For sure: you can’t have Damon declaring he will “have to science the shit out of this” and not find yourself moving your biros to your shirt pocket. But it’s more than a love letter to science. It is an entertaining depiction of a way of behaving that keeps people alive in extreme circumstances: love your job; embrace the little you can do and do it; like it or not, death is always coming, so to hell with it. This, more than any amount of Mars-mission razz, is the real heart of The Martian, the source of its optimism, and a quality deserving of praise.

Of Martians and machines

1908: The Island (work in progress)

Thought arises, not from matter, but from the way it is organised. Alexander Bogdanov, science fiction pioneer, philosopher, physician, Lenin’s friend and rival, explored the idea of automating society. The West calls this cybernetics and it fuels consumer culture. But in the Soviet Union, Bogdanov’s philosophy was discredited and suppressed. On Tuesday 18 December at 7.30pm I’ll be asking why the Soviets abandoned their early dreams of automating Man.

The talk’s at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA, and you can find more details here.