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!).