Thoughts on Passengers and Arrival

Passengers? release here in Malaysia bumped Arrival to a later date, which bothered me immensely, as I was anticipating Arrival much more. I assume that the Malaysian film industry buyers saw Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and thought ?gold?. But Passengers disappeared quickly, and Arrival, once it arrived, gain screens (more so after it started be nominated for awards).

But it?s not fair to force these two films to compete against each other, even though they are in the same genre, Science Fiction, and were released close together. One is Earthbound, one if spacebound. One is about solving a mystery, the other about making an ethical choice. One is a deep, serious movie, one is almost a romantic date film (almost).

Both are about loneliness, but take different approaches to exploring it.

Interestingly, according to Box Office Mojo, they?ve both made just under US$100 million (but Arrival was made for half the budget, Passengers hasn?t recouped its production budget yet).

I loved Arrival. I really liked Passengers. There?s room for both of them in my heart.

Arrival is the slow-moving film that doesn?t give you all the answers. The characters work hard for their victories, and there?s that twist (no spoiler) that makes you rethink what you?ve just been watching. Passengers starts with a bang and ends a bit too rosily, compactly.

Amy Adams, in Arrival, is cautious, intelligent, confused, subtle. Jennifer Lawrence is very emotive and engaging, but not challenging. Jeremy Renner didn?t make a big impression on me in Arrival. Chris Pratt is Chris Pratt. Seeing him in anything makes me long for the next Guardians of the Galaxy. Michael Sheen, as the android bartender Arthur, almost steals any scene he?s in. He does an amazing job of making the character not human.

Both are decent original science fiction stories (as opposed to franchises). Their existence should be embrace by fans everywhere, as they add to the spectrum of good original science fiction films being produced year-in year-out (often lost in the sea of Star Wars / Marvel / Transformer films that shout louder for your attention.

If you haven?t seen either, I?d recommend both: Arrival for when you want a patient, thinking film and Passengers when you want an evening of adventure/romance with stunning sets (even if it gets ethically challenging in the middle).

Are Stormtroopers Really Bad Shots?

Poor stormtroopers, forced to wear limiting armour (you try shooting when your eye slot is so small), relentlessly teased for the inability to shot straight.

What do people know about them? They were the successors to the clone army that defeated the Jedi, supposedly inheriting a peaceful situation. Their activities tended more towards policing than large scale military action. They can?t hit the broad side of a barn.

It?s not just the stormtroopers who are bad shots

We know that Lucas modelled much of the Star Wars military universe after World War II films. Maybe the weaponry inaccuracy was also a reflection of that source. It?s not just the stormtroopers who are bad shots. So are the heroes (although the heroes are all Hollywood Grade A good shots when the plot needs).

According to one source, the US military industrial complex (if you could call it that in the 1940s) made over 47 billion rounds of small arms ammunition to be used in World War II. Chrysler alone was manufacturing 12.5 million rounds of ammunition a month, according to a different source.

This ammo wasn?t just for American soldiers. It was distributed among many allies, and there is no evidence that it was all fired, but that number, 47 billion, also doesn?t include ammunition made by any other country either. Germany had a big industrial war machine, as did England and Japan.

I think we can reasonably assume that 50 billion rounds of ammunition were fired over the course of the war.

So, how many people were killed in the war? Obviously exact numbers are almost impossible to find, but most estimates put the number at around 60 million people, or about 3% of the world?s population at that time. Not all of those people were killed by munitions – death camps, civilian casualties, starvation and other privations would have added to the toll as well, but for simplicity, I?m using the 60 million number.

Using those two numbers, 50 billion rounds and 60 million deaths, we softball a figure of 834 rounds fired for every death caused. That number rises to 926 rounds per death if we take out the approximately 6 million people who died in death camps.

A World War II era soldier would fire between 834 and 926 rounds to make a single kill.

So on average, a World War II era soldier would fire between 834 and 926 rounds to make a single kill.These numbers don?t distinguish between bullets and bombs. The destruction of soft targets like Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed amazing rates of return on ammunition used, further skewering the numbers. Obviously, the bigger the weapon the larger the potential number of victims. It could easily have been that a foot soldier would need to fire on average 1,000 rounds to make a single kill.

Now do our stormtroopers look so bad?

Let’s compare the firefight from the first film — just after Vader kills Ben — to the ensuing spaceship battle. Using the blaster, and not hindered by stormtrooper armour or helmet, Luke and Han kill all their adversaries (Luke even managed to hit the door blast door controls.) The stormtroopers can?t even hit the slow moving droids.

Minutes later, on the Falcon, both Han and Luke miss far more often than they hit when shooting at the Tie fighters. In fact even the Tie fighters, with a big fat target lumbering in front of them, don?t score a great deal of hits.

In World War II air combat, again, a source for Lucas’ combat scenes, an estimated 459.7 billion rounds were fired from aircraft. The USAF estimates that it fired 12,700 rounds for every enemy plane destroyed. Being a bad shot when both the shooter and the target are moving was a given in World War II.

This raises the question of why doesn?t a galaxy-wide, multi-species, spacefaring civilization have better technology. Maybe there wasn?t the need. Jedi had been the guardians of peace for a thousand years before the Empire rose. Military budgets may have been cut, military research left underfunded.

The ground assault troopers in The Empire Strikes Back seem to be better shots

Remember that the Imperial ground assault troopers in The Empire Strikes Back seem to be better shots that the original stormtroopers. Perhaps once the rebellion had ?gotten real’ the empire started giving serious weapons training to it?s otherwise pedestrian police force. Perhaps they?d started investing in technology.

But what happens if the technology gets too good?

One of the least believable scenes in The Force Awakens is when Po flies his X-wing (in the atmosphere above Maz’s castle) and manages about ten kills in very quick succession. Finn, watching from the ground, cheers, but those in my theatre muttered, ?yeah, right?? We?d already gotten accustomed to the idea that Star Wars weaponry just isn?t that accurate. It’s the one thing in the whole Star Wars universe that seems real.

Thank You Christopher Tolkien

My editions

Right off the bat I want to do exactly what the title says and thank Christopher Tolkien for his decades of diligent management, guidance, and protection of the legacy of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. As you may have heard, Christopher, now 93, resigned from managing his father’s estate this past August.

Some media companies are apparently rushing to try to acquire new rights or projects from the estate, now that the man seen as ‘the biggest hurdle’ to their progression is gone.

I’d like to think the opposite. He wasn’t a hurdle, he was a guardian. It would have been easy for Christopher Tolkien to exploit his father’s works for as much money as possible. Instead, he has steadfastly protected the integrity of those works, at the expense of multiple opportunities to cash in. This is a man of integrity.

Amazon has apparently already secured the rights to make a new TV series based in Middle Earth. Frankly I don’t need a new Lord of the Rings filtered through a Game of Thrones sensibility.

Christopher Tolkien was always suspicious of those who wished to portray his father’s universe, and given the angrier, grittier times we live in and the reflection of that in our modern fantasy, I suspect he was right to try to keep his father’s works separate from the modern interpretation.

Peter Jackson, for his part, did an admirable job of preserving J.R.R.’s sensibilities, portraying evil without resorting to gore, degradation, or any of the current oeuvres/ ideas on how to present evil. The archetypal evil of Sauron, Saruman, and Mordor is visceral, not physical. Let’s hope that whoever buys and exploits the newly available rights gets that.

– – – –

On a side note, a few years ago, I met Mahatma Gandhi’s son. Just stop for a second and visualize that. What do you think he would look like? For some reason, when I hear ‘son’ of a famous person, I think of, if not a child, then at least someone younger than me. Mr. Gandhi is a wise, gentle man, a peace activist like his father, but not young.

I had the same response when I heard that Tolkien’s son had retired –  he’s a son, he must be younger than me? Yeah, no. Christopher Tolkien is 93.

Valley Girl Revisited

I recently heard that they were going to remake the film Valley Girl (1983), as a musical. I remember that film well (I remember being a little smitten with the titular girl, not shown in the poster). So I decided to re-watch it. Mistake?

The acting – well Nicholas Cage is Nicholas Cage, even back then – was all short-handed stereotypes to a painful degree. I never understood the motivations of the characters, beyond the hormonal ?hey, you?re sexy! Let?s make out.?

Yet the film tries desperately and repeatedly to be seen as a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Nic Cage plays Randy, Deborah Foreman plays Julie. In case that wasn?t obvious enough, here?s a picture of them below a theatre marque advertising Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, it?s that heavy-handed.

If it?s going to be Shakespearean in scope, it needs conflict. Tommy, Julie?s exceedingly cliched ex brings that. You know he?s evil because he turns the collar of his shirt up. He?s fashionable, arrogant and reeks of what we?d now call ?affluenza.? He doesn?t so much want Julie back as he wants to prove his dominance over her and all women. He plays the sympathy card to get one of her friends to make out with him, then blames her when she asks if he has any feelings for her.

Julie and Randy?s relationship just never quite seems authentic, viewing it now. Character development is limited to pouty faces (both leads) and wardrobe changes (again, both leads). Frankly their best friends have a better, more realistic love/hate relationship. There?s also an awkward subplot about one girl?s mother flirting with her daughter?s boyfriend.

Of course since this technically about high school kids, it culminates at prom, which Julie is attending with Tommy even if she doesn?t care for him. He, in turn, plans this night as his rightful night to have his way with her at a hotel after the dance (worth noting, on this viewing I was surprised at the number of topless women – three – for a film that seems to be about a young woman breaking away from societal norms).

As you?d expect from a high school story, it ends in a fist fight (no weapons, even though this is L.A. and we?re certainly meant to believe that Randy is hat type of boy). We last see our young lovers in Tommy?s limo, heading to Tommy?s hotel room, to apparently shag each other?s brains out, totally, for sure.

Won?t Tommy want to know what happened to his limo?

Won?t he and his friends, go to his hotel room, either looking for her and the limo or to sulk off the indignation of their obviously righteous defeat?

We?ll never know, because ?happily ever after? has to end somewhere. Wait, isn?t this supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet retelling? What does ?happily ever after? have to do with this?

Sssshhhh!

Deborah Foreman didn?t have much of a career after this. When I was younger, I wondered why. Now I wonder how Nicholas Cage did manage to build a career out of playing basically this same character repeatedly. I?m not saying that he?s bad in this, he?s probably the best part. I?m just saying that this film basically encompasses every role he would ever go on to do.

There are good parts to the movie. The music certainly stands the test of time (some of it any way). I Melt With You by Modern English has certainly held up well, and I remember falling in love with Eyes of a Stranger by the Payola$ (Here with clips from the movie edited in). Both of these songs are still playlists of mine.

Thoughts?

Livestreaming the world’s wind

I am absolutely addicted to this site, Windyty.com. It shows you wind patterns live (maybe a 30 minute delay) for anywhere in the world. Above is peninsular Malaysia, where I live. Also, when you go to the site, note the controls on the lower right side – try clicking a few, like “Waves, Sea”, and see how the map changes. I’m totally hooked on this.

Here’s rhe same map, but now it’s showing waves (approximations of how rough or calm the seas are)! NOTE that you can zoom in or out in either map, or even move around, the same way you would with Google Maps.

Reflections on Living in Namibia

It?s been three years since I left Africa, possibly, but hopefully not, for good (and six years since I lived in Namibia). Time gives distance, perspective, a chance to appreciate the value of what you?ve experienced.

I came to Africa, more specifically Namibia, through a non-profit called WorldTeach. I was assigned to teach English at a rural secondary school in the north of the country. My town, Ohangwena, had a population smaller than the population of the school I was assigned to, a government-run boarding school with its own population of around 900 students. There were textbooks, but nowhere near enough for the 40+ students I had in each class. There was electricity most of the time, but no lightbulbs for the dark classrooms, a photocopier that worked about three hours a week. However, there was a large dose of institutionalized apathy.

I taught English at a rural secondary school in Namibia.

One of the hardest aspects of working there was the fatalism. It?s frustrating to repeatedly be told that something can?t be changed or fixed because ?this is Africa.? But what can be worse is when the locals buy into the naïve optimism of the foreigner. 

Study hard and you?ll get accepted into university, we told them, and they believed us. But with great grades, acceptance to university still wasn?t guaranteed ? political, familial and tribal affiliations could derail any promising, hard working young person. How can you not be a fatalist when your doors are closed as soon as you?re born?

In northern Namibia, a young woman isn?t truly an adult until she?s had a child of her own. This pressure drives even some of the most promising out of education, out of a career path and into a cycle of poverty

It?s too easy to look at the foreigner with their ideas and enthusiasm and dismiss them as not understanding or of imposing western ways. And sometimes they are correct. Why did my school burn all of it?s own garbage instead of composting and using the compost to grow a small vegetable garden? It seemed like an obvious and simple change that would have positive impacts ? less pollution, more food. How does that not work? It doesn?t work because (often venomous) snakes are attracted to the steady heat of the compost pile, and there are enough problems with students getting bitten by non-venomous lizards without inviting killers into the grounds.

As it was, I had an encounter with a black mamba, a very aggressive, very deadly snake, on the school grounds. Foolishly, I took pictures of it before a passing teacher saw the snake and started screaming. I was fortunate to walk away from the encounter. The snake became someone?s dinner.

People live a lot closer to death.

In much of Africa (definitely in what you probably picture of as ?Africa?) people live a lot closer to death. If there?s going to be any kind of meat with dinner ? chicken, goat or, occasionally, cow ­?­ then someone in the family will have looked it in the eye and killed it.

People also seem to die more frequently. A government minister coming to visit our school died when his car hit a kudu (large deer); a co-worker fell sick and died within a week; another co-worker passed out in class, died without ever waking up. Cholera, meningitis, malaria, and tuberculosis were all common and deadly. HIV/AIDS was responsible for one third of all deaths in Namibia in 2010 (and over a quarter still today). In comparison, road accidents, of which there are plenty, only accounted for five percent.

These are a people who generally don?t live long enough to die from cancer. Even prostate cancer, the most fatal cancer in Namibia, only ranks twenty-third as cause of death, and accounts for six tenths of one percent of all deaths annually.

(All stats from here)

But let?s not paint an image of a countryside waylaid by death. It isn?t. Much of the Africa that I saw, mostly in the south and east, is tamed. The roads are paved or at least maintained and everyone?s favourite toy is the cell phone.

There?s innovation going on here ? in cell phone money transfers; in checking the expiration and validity of medications; in microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship.

There’s innovation going on here.

Most Africans I met were quite good at spoken languages, no matter how poor their schooling may have been. Many spoke three or four languages and could understand dialects derived from them. In the south, most people spoke English and Afrikaans as well as their own traditional language. In much of the continent, there are imported languages that transcend national boundaries ? English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese ? as well as few African ones, notably Swahili and Yoruba.

The people I met generally knew what the world thought of them, and mostly it made them angry. They weren?t looking for hand-outs (with a few exceptions). They were looking for a fair shake, and honest chance, or as they got more cynical with life, a dishonest chance, to get ahead.

Living in Namibia taught me, more than anywhere else I?ve been, that people are the same, no matter skin colour, economic condition or education. Everyone wants better for their family. Parents worry about children. Adult children worry about their parents. Some people are nice, some are not, and some would be nice if they could get ahead that way.

Emperor of the Eight Islands, a review

Lian Hern writes a good tale here, but not a great one. She sets it in a fictional medieval Japan, sort of. We?ll come back to that. In spite of the long names, and similarities among the names, the characters are distinct and sometimes compelling. But everything I?m saying has qualifiers on it, because something was just not ? right, and I?m not sure what.

There are good things here – characters to care about, solid descriptions of esoteric rituals, high stakes. Some characters? names change as the story progresses. I was alright with this and thought it was handled well.

Some of the geography was vividly described, but some of it was not. Characters could see events occurring in other places and this wasn?t clear on if it was because geography allowing them or if this was magic.

To give you an idea of how this book misses its target, I got to the end of it but have no idea what the eight islands of the title are. For a story set in Japan, it was too generic, not grounded in the geography and history enough for me as a reader. I kept comparing this book to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese story, which showed, I think, one of the story?s flaws: It wasn?t Japanese enough.

It was clearly set in the orient, but there was nothing in the story that couldn?t have been just as easily told as Chinese or Korean. I think some of the best parts of this story, like the magical elements, were the ones that seemed the most Chinese to me.

In the end, I think this was a book that needed more time to percolate, formulate, and evolve.

There are three more books in this series. Would I read them? Sure, if I find them on sale and have nothing more pressing to read. Will I remember the story five years from now? I doubt it.

The Many Levels That Dune Can Be Read At

sandworms

Hey, if you haven’t already read Frank Herbert’s Dune, then:

a) Shame on you. And
b) I’m going to spoil the crap out of it for you.

Go read it now.

Then come back here.

I believe that there are at least four ways that you can interpret Dune as you read it (I have a fifth, but it’s kind of trite).

The first, and easiest way to read Dune is as a traditional coming of age story, the Campbell myth. Young Paul Atreides must grow into manhood when his family is attacked and his house scattered. Paul grows from a soft young boy to a militant leader, and eventually the emperor of all humanity. It’s a long story arc and it necessitates a long book length.

The second common interpretation of Dune is the environmental one. Dune is ravaged by harsh deserts in an age where we can control the weather. Why is Dune left that way? So that the local natural resource, Melange*, can be exploited. Do the locals have any say in this? No they do not. Their colonizers have decided their fate and will continue to to do so?

Which takes us to the third interpretation – the nascent Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s. The Arab nations of the Middle East were discovering that if they took control of their local resource, petroleum, then they could control the world’s economy.

Which leads us four: interpreting it through religious extremism. I’m not sure that Herbert comes down against this, not in its totality. On the one hand, he gives us the Bene Gesserit – secretive, extreme, pushing their own agenda throughout history towards the goal of creating a Kwisatz Haderach**, a male supreme leader of their order. Supposedly this man will put humanity on ‘the golden path’ and ensure our future, but within the structure of the story, there is no real threat to our future that needs to be overcome. On the other hand, Paul taps into the Fremen’s religious belief in a saviour and uses that to give himself a power base and get revenge upon his enemies. There are points in the story when Paul regrets his actions (more so in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) but by then it’s too late – he’s started something that he can’t stop. his only hope is to ride it out and guide it where he can.

There is at least one final way to interpret Dune, a cautionary tale about using drugs or medicine for performance enhancement. The Guild Navigators pay an incredibly high price for their use of the spice, transforming from a human form into one that is not only not compatible with us, but not compatible with our environment. The whole human society has become reliant upon this one drug (again the petroleum oil analogy) for their economy to function. Bene Gesserit pay an incredibly high price, as to become a full member (Reverend Mother) one must drink a poisonous form of the drug and survive.

There are probably others: Human capacity for specialization versus reliance on AI; Fear of innovation (fear of IX and its products); Racism (The lack of acceptance of the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, forcing them into poor economies or dangerous power plays); Classism/Feudalism (Chani can never be Paul’s wife, only his concubine).

What do you think? How else can that story be interpreted? (Or should readers just shut up and read the book without forcing an interpretation?)

NOTES:
* Melange is the French word for Cinnamon, FYI.
** Kwisatz Haderach is awfully close to Kefitzat Haderech, which Wikipedia calls “a Jewish Kabbalistic term that literally means contracting the path.”

Star Trek at 50 – Beyond the fanbase


It?s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and the fans had been hoping for a grand celebration. With no new Star Trek on TV this year, and with much of the original core fanbase not happy with JJ Abram?s 2009 rebooting of the franchise, this might be the most depressing birthday party you ever attend (or more likely, don?t even hear about).

Gene Roddenberry?s estate has been posting new Trek memorabilia on Facebook. But that valiant effort has gone largely unnoticed.

At the time of this writing, it?s almost May, and still there?s no real sign of Star Trek Beyond marketing, not even a poster. The third film in the JJ Trek reboot seems to be hiding behind a cloaking device. Months ago, there was a trailer, but it was widely trashed by the fanbase. After that, marketing went silent, while the director started filming new scenes with new characters (http://moviepilot.com/posts/3825432) for reasons unknown.

Paramount, the film?s studio, hasn?t shown any clips of the movie, not even at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in April. CinemaCon is where theatre owners go to learn about upcoming movies and learn how the studios will support the films? releases. Star Trek Beyond wasn?t mentioned, even as the studio was hyping films with much later release dates.

After the questions arose about Star Trek Beyond?s absence from CinemaCon, Paramount announced a ?Special Fan Event? for May 20. This special event is said to include a new trailer and a Q&A with the director and stars. Also, posters bor the movie have appeared at the Cannes film festival. That still seems underwhelming.

There?s just a little whiff of the Titanic sinking to all this. Should I mention that JJ left the franchise, his hand-picked successor quit/was fired, and a new script was rushed through in six months? Oh, and the new, studio-approved director is best known for The Fast and Furious.

Somehow, Star Trek went into it?s 50th with no momentum. Some blame Paramount/CBS for aggressively suing once tolerated fan films. Others blame JJ Abrams for ruining the Star Trek universe with a reboot that has made this distinct entity into yet another action franchise.

I?ve spoken elsewhere about the Paramount/CBS fight, so let?s look at the other part of the equation.

Where did the JJ ?verse go wrong? The point of bifurcation between the original universe and JJ Trek seems blurred, as some changes must have occurred before the inciting events of the 2009 movie could possibly have impacted the timeline.

In the original series we learn that the Enterprise was built in Earth orbit. In JJ Trek, the Enterprise is built in Earth?s full gravity, exposed to the elements as the delicate machinery is assembled. Better still, JJ?s Enterprise can not only enter atmosphere, it can submerge (Yes, both subs and spaceships have to be airtight, but the pressure runs in the opposite direction – in a sub, the pressure is greater outside, in space, the pressure is greater inside. Building a spaceship to withstand being submerged is a hell of a design criteria, structurally, and with added mass and all that implies about fuel consumption and maneouverability. How often would designers have to expect submersion to happen so that it made it through budget proposals?).

The age of the Enterprise has changed. In the original universe, Captain April commanded the Enterprise from new, then Captain Pike commanded her for 10 years. Finally, Kirk became captain for a 5 year mission. The Enterprise is a decade or more old by the time Kirk takes command. In JJ Trek, the Enterprise is a just-commissioned vessel.

In the original universe, cybernetics is occasionally encountered, and often pass for human for a short while at least. It?s not until Commander Data appears in The Next Generation, that Starfleet is shown containing androids. In JJ Trek, there?s an android on the bridge of the Enterprise, decades earlier than it should be. Oddly, it is not a plot point, nor particularly useful.

Exhibit A 

Distances don?t align between the two Trek universes. i?m not sure how that could have changed. Travel time to Vulcan is at least a day and a half from Earth in the orginal series episode Amok Time (In the story, it?s a three day diversion to go to Vulcan en route to Earth. Depending upon alignment, the closest they could be is a day and a half away). In JJ Trek, it takes 7 minutes to get to Vulcan.

In the original series and onwards into the next generation, transporters can be used to send someone down to a planet from orbit, or between ships in close proximity. In JJ Trek, they can be used to send someone from Earth to Qo?nos, the capital of the Klingon Empire. Why even use expensive space ships if you can transport that far?

There are probably other points, but these seem most egregious and aren?t of the ?why was Khan played by a white man?? variety. The question for diehard fans is why is history different, why is the spacing of the cosmos different, if not because of Nero?s appearance? When did it change?

It’s an odd nitpick, perhaps, but i think it’s the root of the problem that old-school Trek fans have had with the JJ verse version of Trek, and this new film, shrouded in secrecy, is just feeding those feelings of abandonment.

The Martian is NOT a true story (but it could have been)

So the buzz this morning is that a number of people are leaving theatres after seeing The Martian, believing that what they?ve just seen was ?based on a true story?. Why are people coming to that conclusion?

For The Martian to have been based a true story, we would have had to have put people on Mars three times (The doomed expedition was the third mission to Mars). We would have to have a cool spaceship like the Hermes to ferry people between planets. None of which is true.

So why do so many people believe that it is a true story?

Probably partially because science fiction stories (and movie special effects) have blurred the line between reality and fantasy, leaving people confused about what humanity actually has accomplished. Also, possibly as wish fulfillment. We should be on Mars, dammit.

My generation grew up with Apollo, with the freaking Moon baby! People (welll, white American men anyway) were walking on the Moon! My generation grew up with 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s commercialized space flight, and very plausible space station. People lived on the Moon. That was our future. Now let’s look at what we got…

What have we accomplished in space?
Not very much, all things considered, and less and less every decade: In the 1950s-1960s, Earth orbits and first steps to the Moon; Early 1970s, the Moon – living the dream, but the future was already getting cloudy; 1980s the space shuttle and eventually an Earth-orbiting space station for it to visit. The Moon might still have been reachable, but no budget for it; 1990s more the same with less budget – a larger space station, but no more potential for Moon trips; 2000s still more of the same, with a few neat telescopes added in (Hubble et al); 2010s, even the space shuttle is gone. Less of the same.

Have humans been to Mars?
No. We have sent robots to Mars, but no human has come anywhere near close to the planet. We have sent other unmanned probes to the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and poor little Pluto). And one such probe, Voyager 1, is on the verge of leaving our solar system – but it doesn?t have people on it, none of the probes do.

Have humans been to the Moon?
Yes, twelve white American men have stepped foot on the Moon. The last did so in 1972. That’s 43 years ago! No, we haven?t been back since. The Moon, which orbits the Earth, is the furthest that humanity has ever been from Earth. It isn?t far, not really.

I?m sure more people have been to the Moon!
As a teacher of students from many countries, I?ve had this argument repeatedly. Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese students have all insisted that their country has sent men to the Moon. A quick search of their own most trusted news engine (because ?Google lies for Americans?) invariably reveals that they?ve been to low Earth orbit – the International Space Station or some such – but no further. N one has been to the Moon since 1972.

But the space shuttle flew to the Moon all the time!
No, it did not. It flew low Earth orbit missions, with the Hubble telescope being the highest altitude that it ever reached (approximately 550 kilometres above the Earth. The Moon is 384,400 km away). In an attempt to clear confusion about this very issue, NASA started calling the shuttle an orbiter because it was designed only to orbit Earth.

But I saw a TV commercial where there was a shuttle on the Moon.
Yes, I saw that ad too. It was fiction. It lied – most advertisements do, so why is this shocking? (I had this conversation with a doctor, by the way.).

What if we had kept building on our successes in the 1970s instead of turning our backs on space exploration? Where would we be today? The only thing stopping us from living on the Moon is the commitment to spend the money. The US alone has spent an estimated between $4-6 trillion dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. That kind of money can be found, when the political will is there. Somehow it can’t be found to extend Humanity’s living space.

Popular Science has an infographic about living on Mars if we used today’s technologies and had no economies of scale involved (each person travels in their own rocket,  has their own sustainable housing – no sharing of costs or resources). It comes out to $42 billion per person – mostly in travel expenses. THe US military could (but not realistically) afford to set up 15 people a year on Mars. A NASA study, reported in Popular Science, states that a permanent presence on the Moon could be had for a total investment of $10 billion. Now we’re getting down to Elon Musk levels of wealth, Bill Gates levels of wealth, not national commitments that defund other government services. There was a song when I was growing up – The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades. Where did that future go?

BUT The Martian is a great movie, based on a great (fictional) book. You should either go see it or go read it (or both!).