Wednesday, August 4

Becoming Earthlings

skepticIt might be a good idea to save this “Skeptics Collection” column, print it off, and put it in a safe-deposit box or a time capsule. You see, this post is going to be in the nature of a movie review. Sorta. Kinda. I normally do not do movie reviews, and consider movie reviews about as relevant to me, personally, as a bicycle is to a fish. Or a condom to a Republican. (Sorry … couldn’t resist!) But I am going to make an exception in the case of the recent and justly renowned Matt Damon science-fiction movie The Martian. Virtually all the reviews I have read concentrate on the movie as a paean to international cooperation, the STEM disciplines, and an essential optimism about the ability of the human species to triumph over catastrophe. All that is true. The Martian is all those things. But there is a darker and far more pessimistic subtext to the movie that, at least so far, has seemed to escape the notice of all the critics whose reviews I have read. Matt Damon’s razzle-dazzle and the technological / special-effects pyrotechnics, both Oscar-worthy, easily cause us to lose sight of the movie’s departure from – even its detachment from – historical context.


My apologies in advance for any spoilers in what follows. But the number of people who have not at least read a synopsis of The Martian could hold a convention in a phone booth. But just in case … the movie is about a medium-future – a few decades, but less than a century – expedition to Mars on the part of six astronauts. (I say “medium future” because all the cell phones look suspiciously like late-model i-Phones.) The expedition in question, Ares III, is the third of a projected five human expeditions to Mars jointly comprised by Project Ares. But a little less than halfway through their projected stay on the surface of Mars, a severe storm blows into the landing site, and the Ares III mission commander, Commander Melissa Lewis, coolly played by Jessica Chastain, orders the astronauts outside the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to return to the ship and to prepare to liftoff the surface and into orbit:  if the wind blows the MAV over on its side, no one is going home. On the way back to the MAV, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by a piece of wind-driven debris, knocked unconscious, and basically buried in the shifting sands. Since the MAV is about to tip over from the vertical, Lewis orders the launch, leaving Watney behind. The rest of the movie is about the near-miraculous survival of Watney, his ingenuity in bolstering the abandoned living quarters on the Martian surface, his communication with Earth, and his eventual rescue by the mother ship, the Hermes, whose crew – basically staging a mutiny against the express orders of NASA senior management – elects to swing around earth, postpone returning to Earth, and return to Mars to rescue their lost-but-now-found comrade Mark Watney.

We can nit-pick at the few places where the movie taxes credibility. The most prominent such – though still inside the envelope of believability – is Mark Watney’s psychological resilience. But then, presumably one of the salient requirements for being a Mars astronaut would be exceptionally robust emotional strength. There are a couple of technical points one could question. For one thing, the vehicle Watney uses to rendezvous with the Hermes – a MAV for the future Ares IV mission pre-positioned on the Martian surface – is stripped of its nose cone to provide a means of egress into the mother ship … so, as Watney himself notes, when he ascends from Mars in the Ares IV MAV, he will be flying a “convertible”. There is also a subtle issue in which a Jet Propulsion Laboratory mega-nerd equates a slingshot trajectory with a Hohmann maneuver using the Oberth effect. But that may well be just a misinterpretation of movie dialogue on my part. (The movie plot was getting pretty intense at that point.) And in any case, all such reservations pertain to the “picture” of the movie. My problem is a more comprehensive issue with the “frame”, i.e., the larger historical context.


In what follows, I wish I were dead-wrong. But I don't think so.

The “frame” of The Martian, its fundamental presupposition, is a very simple – and simply impossible – postulate: the US has embarked alone on a massive, demanding, presumably staggeringly expensive, and unprecedentedly sophisticated multi-phase program of human exploration of Mars. The crew members are international, but the project is entirely American-financed – judging by some dialogue concerning congressional reluctance to finance Ares IV and V if an attempt were not made to rescue Mark Watney. Project Apollo “only” went to the moon, but Apollo strained America’s science economy to the breaking point, and even so, funding only persisted because the US was competing with the Soviets. (Without naming names, of course, I will say that I know perhaps a baker’s dozen NASA scientists, most deceased, some retired, who still resent Apollo’s monopolization of funding for space exploration.) The point is that The Martian – again, I wish I were wrong – is predicated on the type of large-scale science project that no individual nation has the resources to undertake: human exploration of the planets. (In fairness to the movie, I should probably say that, if the writers had dealt with this issue, neither the story nor the movie would ever have gotten off the ground ... so to speak.) I say “I wish I were wrong” because I have always had a burning curiosity – “lust” would not be too strong a word – to see just what the hell is out there. And, while robotic probes are indisputably impressive, I want humans to venture forth and see for themselves. My conclusion: long-term, sustained human exploration of the planets -- or even one relatively earth-like planet such as Mars -- is a project that can only – only – be undertaken, not by any individual nation or even any restricted consortium of nations, but by the human race itself. Are we – meaning “the human race” – presently capable of this? That is, do we (= the human race) have the ability to work together as a global civilization, not for a few years or even for a few decades, but for time-scales that would support the sustained exploration of the solar system ... almost certainly generations at least, most likely centuries?

My short answer: no. Nor do we (= the human race) show signs of being able to do so for generations … it may well be centuries. Remember Stanley Kubrick's still-iconic 2001:  A Space Odyssey? It projected the human exploration of Saturn by 2001, a degree of optimism that makes my toenails ache now for its naivete. No wonder Mad magazine entitled its satire of the movie 2001 Minutes of Space Idiocy. Admittedly that is a bit harsh.  Remember: we were much more innocent and much less nihilistic in 1968.


Hardware is the easy part. Ditto software. In fact, I would venture the educated guess that the technology exists right now – this moment – to undertake a real-world version of The Martian’s Project Ares. What we lack, and will lack into the indefinite future, is not hardware but … well … call it “heart-ware”. The sustained, large-scale exploration of the solar system will require human beings to develop the capacity to act, not as a loose collection of squabbling, often warring, nations and tribes competing for preeminence on this one small planet, and will require something like the subordination of nationalistic competitions, religious prejudice, and racial fractiousness in favor of devoting prime loyalty to the human race as such, the human race per se, the human race tout court. Conservatives' knees will jerk toward the charge of "collectivism" ... one minor but telltale instance of the problem.

Herewith an analogy:  during the run-up to the American Civil War, it was customary to reference the United States with a first-person plural verb -- " ... the United States are ... " -- because the antebellum States were thought of as quasi-autonomous sovereignties in their own right. After the Civil War, the first-person plural verb became first-person singular: " .. the United States is ... ". State sovereignty was not forsaken. People still knew they were Virginians, Georgians, etc. But this sense of separateness was subordinated to a sense that the United States was not only, or even primarily, a collection of sovereign States, but "one Nation indivisible". Then the process of Nation-building could begin in earnest, and the energies hitherto diverted by controversies over the great Compromises, States' rights, nullification, etc., etc., could be directed toward truly national goals. The great Question of all questions had been settled:  we were one Nation. Note that this required, above all else, a change of heart. That is what I mean by "heart-ware". In the period following 1865, the Nation underwent, is still undergoing, a "heart-ware" update. Something analogous will be required, something above and beyond and transcending mere law, something in the heart, before we (= the human race) can ever hope to undertake the serious and sustained exploration of the planets and -- who knows? -- someday, perhaps, the stars. Only then can the energies we presently devote to pointless competition among religions and ideologies, to developing newer and more efficient ways of hacking one another to bits, to the despoilation of the very planet we all share be diverted to the welfare of each other, the  nurturing of the common human spirit, and the exploration of the Universe before which we all stand in awe. Somewhere in the Galaxy, there may be species that comprises "hive minds", a benevolent version of Star Trek's Borg or the formics of the Ender's Game cycle. But I would speculate that, for species that evolved as individuals and developed tribal identities -- in other words, nations -- this may well be one of the "gates" determining how long the species survives a la the Drake Equation. In any case, before we have any hope of becoming Martians, we first have to become Earthlings.

We first have to grow up.

James R. Cowles


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