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Between engineering and entertainment: NASA and 'The Martian'

by Francis French, contributing writer

Sept. 4, 2015

— It's fascinating to watch a bunch of movie industry-types and the engineering folks of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory mingle. NASA is eagerly promoting its efforts to look for evidence of life on Mars: but if it needed to look for how people from very different worlds interacted, the discussions between entertainment industry bloggers and JPL engineers would be a great place to start. The engineers, many in stonewashed jeans and white sneakers with the ubiquitous polo shirt and lanyard that seem to be the JPL uniform, are ready to give it their best shot.

It's a beautiful August morning in the rugged area around JPL. As the mountaintop clouds burn away and another perfect Southern California day begins, the movie folks are beginning to feel the heat.

We're standing out in the Mars Yard, where the engineers are putting Mars rover wheels through their paces. To insure that a multi-billion-dollar future mission doesn't sputter to a halt in the sands of the real Mars, JPL is testing as much as it can on earth first. Driving different types of wheels around in circles for sixty hours at a time, changing out the types of rocks they roll over, they can work out which wheels will develop cracks and holes. There's a garage full of broken prototypes, so the effort seems worth it.

But the artificial desert is not great for the Hollywood folks, many of whom retreat after a few minutes to the shade of a shack full of robotic parts. The smartphones appear, as they kill time waiting for the air-conditioned shuttle bus to whisk them to the next stop. An impressive number, however, remain to listen to the engineers explaining the intricacies of exploring Mars. "I'm geeking out here," one of them whispers to me. "I have lived in LA for years, and yet I've never driven up here. This is awesome."

It's an encouraging trend that NASA is keen to capitalize on. You don't have to be into space to think that exploring Mars is just, well, cool. And it goes a long way to explaining why NASA is eagerly participating in the making and promotion of "The Martian," a movie where a human mission to Mars goes dreadfully, embarrassingly wrong.

In the dark and cool of a nearby movie theater, it's evident that the JPL managers have invested a lot of time in bridging the gap between entertainment and engineering. Charles Elachi, JPL's director, presents some real Mars footage in Hollywood-style jump cuts, complete with stirring music, which gets the crowd applauding. Instead of skipping the thorny issue of mission failures, he hits it head-on, pointing out that half of the missions sent to Mars to date have failed. "Mars is really tough," he explains, but reminds us that Teddy Roosevelt once challenged the country "to dare mighty things." The novel of the movie we are about to see, he explains, "takes us there, and prepares us for the challenges and excitement of the future." In one stroke, a story of disaster and survival has become a proto-training manual. It's a smart move.

Jim Green, who has perhaps the coolest job description in the room, directing NASA's planetary science work, solidifies the connection. Explaining how NASA is currently undertaking its longest-duration flight in space yet, he emphasizes "it is a critical stage for us to examine what it is like to live in space for a long period of time — because Mars is far, far away." He displays ambitious images of spacecraft and rockets that will take humans "well out into space and into the Mars environment — a tremendous capability. It has to lift the supplies and crews all the way to Mars." Presenting stunning photos of the Martian surface, he explains "we know more about Mars than any other planet other than Earth. This is critical, if we are to send humans to explore, and return, from Mars."

With current and future plans outlined, Green begins to add in images from the movie to his Mars shots, talking about them in the same way as the real missions — what would be possible? What is critical to sustain humans on Mars? The line between reality and imagination was crossed so subtly, it took me a moment to notice.

Andy Weir, the author of the novel that the film is based on, can't stop grinning. He reminds me of an eager kid who's finally getting to go to his favorite theme park. "It's a Cinderella moment for me," he explains to the audience. The book started as a labor of love on his blog, he explains, read by "a small but vocal reading base of hardcore science nerds. I'd been writing science-based humor stuff for about ten years." Those readers loved the story, but hated reading it on his web site, which he admits was "crap." His story, about how his thoughts came to be a movie, sounds as fantastic as a movie script, complete with happy ending. Weir created an e-reader version, priced at 99 cents because that was the minimum price allowed for the format, just to please his friends.

"It never occurred to me that it would have any mainstream appeal. I just thought it would be this complete niche, that very few people would be interested in. My favorite thing is when I get fan mail that begins 'I don't normally read science fiction, but...' "

As the book increased in popularity, Weir found himself selling the movie rights and the book rights — in the same week. "An exciting week for me," Weir explains with a grin that suggests he still can't believe it happened. Many movies are optioned but are never made, so Weir was not expecting much — only to learn that, days apart, Academy-Award-winning actor Matt Damon and acclaimed director Ridley Scott signed on to put the novel on the big screen. Now sharing a stage with Damon and Scott, eager to take a selfie with them both, it's clear that Weir is still reeling at how far his story has come. "You fantasize about these things coming true — like being a top player in a baseball league — but, for me, it actually happened!"

Ridley Scott has been directing movies since the seventies, and he's not going to get too excited about another promotional event. This has the effect of making what he does say all the more believable — he softly gives his opinions, rather than sell his movie. "There's a great film called 'The Right Stuff,'" he shares softly, "with fear and terror — and also control and coolness. That film is about how to find that calm. To look for it internally and pull it in. To live, hour by hour, day by day." He's going for the same effect in "The Martian." And as Jim Green explains, he was happy to help the filmmaker achieve his vision.

"What Ridley did was, he really reached out to us. I was coming back from the cafeteria when our public affairs official came running around looking for me. And he says, can you take a call from Ridley Scott at two o'clock this afternoon? I said, the Ridley Scott? He said, yeah! So I just cleared my calendar. It was that easy. He really wants to paint the picture. When you read a book, you imagine everything, but as a filmmaker he wanted to make it realistic, and I really appreciated pulling together teams of people and answering the questions that Ridley asked. And the more that happened, the more I got excited about that. Because it does indeed look very realistic, there are a lot of realistic elements in it, and it's very, very much appreciated from a NASA perspective."

Before Scott shows us about half of "The Martian," in almost-finished form, he explains that some special effects have not yet been completed. Most obviously, the astronauts on Mars don't have their spacesuit helmet faceplates. "I know," he says with a chuckle, "no visors yet. You may think there is a lot wrong with it. But when we finish it, I think it will be pretty much perfect."

Movies based on books often fail, for two reasons. They try and cram everything from the book onscreen, which weighs down the pace. Or they change the story so much, the magic of the book is lost. From the footage I saw, Scott has succeeded in avoiding both pitfalls. The movie feels remarkably similar to the book in tone and humor, and yet it moves along at an entertaining pace. The overall feel of the book — humor in the face of death, not just determination — comes through perfectly. I'm sorry when it ends, primarily because it is nice to see what Scott did not do wrong, more than what he did right.

There are elements he's filmed that work even better as a movie than on the page — the pathos of an empty seat in a spacecraft, and a rocket descent stage left behind on the Martian surface as a symbol of abandonment. And, as Scott explains once the footage has ended, he was keen to get the science as correct as possible. It was more of a challenge to make a movie where the engineering was grounded in reality than one where the science fiction could be more futuristic, he found. For example, to get around the fact that Mars has less gravitational pull than Earth, Scott rationalized how his astronauts walked on the surface. "It's a fairly chunky suit," he explains, "fairly heavy, so the mathematics roughly works out at, more or less, just under normal movement."

"It's a situation where you just have to suggest it, I think" Matt Damon adds. "We're not at a point where we can do forty percent gravity. We can do weightlessness, we can get on wires and do that space stuff, or you can do the Vomit Comet. But it's not what these real guys can do — I'm sitting next to one" he adds, pointing at the guy to his right.

Drew Feustel, an astronaut with two missions on the space shuttle under his belt, is the only person on the stage who has felt weightlessness for real on a space mission. He's also the only one who has to dress a certain way today. Like most public relations events that NASA astronauts do, he's wearing his flight suit complete with mission patches and velcroed name tag, which serve no practical purpose away from a spacecraft other than to boldly say "I'm the astronaut." He's also more constrained in his role than anyone else there. While everyone onstage is going to say good things about the movie, Feustel also has to say good things about the space program. Like most astronauts, however, he is skilled at doing this sincerely and personably. "Congratulations on a great movie," he tells Scott and Damon. "These things are very real for us — these visions of exploration — and this brings them to life. Thank you for making us look good. We are not as smart and cool as we look up there on the screen."

The irony of Feustel's participation in the event, of course, is he has carried out missions off the planet that rival any novel. And yet, the clear focus of all the media attention today is not on the real spacefarer, but instead on actor Matt Damon.

"I'm an actor," Damon remarks on this. "The astronauts are very selfless. They are thinking of the bigger project. The actors just want to look at themselves!"

"That's the funny thing about astronauts," Feustel quips. "We have to be smart enough to fly a spacecraft back to Earth, but just a little bit wacky enough to sit on top of that rocket fuel. And when the countdown gets to zero, you're definitely having second thoughts about the decisions in life!"

Damon certainly carries himself differently than anyone else on the stage. He's the star. And yet, he's not playing to any crowd today. He just seems like a genuine, warm person. He's eager to answer questions, to praise the rest of the team, and none of it seems contrived or slick. The phrase I hear over and over about him all day is, "nice guy."

I ask Damon whether it is a welcome challenge to carry a movie almost alone as an actor, similar to a solo performance in the theater, or whether this is intimidating without the comfort of fellow actors in most scenes.

"I think it is the illusion that I carry the movie," he replies disarmingly. "Actually, it is all down to Ridley, it really is. And, you know, I'll get a lot of the credit for what he did, because he's got to keep the audience with just one actor up there. He's got to keep them involved and keep the story going, and it really was the reason I wanted to do it. I read the script, I thought it was great, I read the book, I thought it was great, but when I heard Ridley wanted to do it, that was the — you know, it's a director's medium, what I do. And when you get one of the greatest directors of all time, it is a very, very quick phone call.

"And yes, it was a challenge, and I said, well, okay, it's going to be me in a lot of me in these scenes — but it's going to be me and Ridley Scott! And that was a very easy decision to make."

Faced with such glowing praise, Scott interjects "he was never that generous on set!" which gets a big laugh.

Having just watched a Mars mission play out on screen, Feustel is asked when real NASA astronauts will be selected to make the first human missions to that world.

"I would say that we're choosing astronauts to go to Mars every time we have an astronaut selection, and the idea is that, as we continue on in this legacy of space exploration, each class that we choose — really the goal is to select astronauts that we think are capable of qualifying to go into space, and if they are not the ones, they are going to be involved in the planning and preparation and training of the next generation of astronauts. So, in reality, we've been selecting astronauts to go to Mars since we started the space program, and we continue to do that. The actual selection is purely a function of when we have our spacecraft ready, and it's going to take some time, we still have a couple of technological hurdles to get over, but the intent is to continue to develop those, explore, and be ready. I think that every year that passes, every step we get closer to our Orion spacecraft being prepared for deep space exploration, just enables us to look at initial technologies, and figure out what it is going to take to get on Mars. We've been to Mars robotically; obviously for us, humans are next. And we just continue on that journey with every passing year of the space program."

Would Damon be interested in journeying into space for real? Not yet, it seems.

"I have done a lot of space travel in the last couple of years — onscreen — and I do think you have to be a certain type of person, like the pioneers were, the person who crossed that valley in a wagon. It takes a special kind of person to want to push the envelope, to find where the very edge is and go there. And that's how we evolve, that's why we're here. I'm glad that there are those types of people already, but I think it would be tough for me to do it. I'll let SpaceX and those guys get out there for maybe twenty years or so before I go on a flight."

So, how can a connection be made between this movie and what NASA needs to do to get humans to Mars? Feustel is honest about the problem NASA has with inspiration — drama is generally a bad thing on real space missions.

"The challenge that we have at NASA, even as astronauts, part of our role is to go out and educate the public, talk to kids, and inspire people. But unfortunately we do that with boring things that we do really well. I mean, we've been exploring space with humans for a long, long time — more than fifty years. And the challenge we have is, we do it well, we do it right, we try not to make mistakes, and we keep the drama out of it. I watched this movie, I read this book, and it's just amazing — I was really captivated. But as an astronaut, the last thing you want to happen is something go wrong. Someone to be left behind, someone to be dead. That's not part of our business. So we have this ultimate struggle, where our job as NASA is to get public support, and it's great that we have the help of Hollywood in making these movies. We need the help, and I hope we can combine the arts and sciences and keep that momentum going. We're doing the best we can, and we're not as dramatic as we should be, but that's the good side. That's the way we are successful."

Andy Weir certainly hopes that "The Martian" will be part of a wave of new movies that combine real science and great stories.

"If the public has an interest in science that drives a market demand for science-based entertainment, and when you have guys like this making stuff of this quality, you are going to get butts in seats. That's going to encourage more people to make similar movies. This is the third big budget, space-ish movie — I think this one takes way more effort to be scientifically accurate, but there is also Interstellar, and Gravity. So people are more interested in actual science fiction as opposed what science fiction used to be, which is just fantasy with a scientific skin on it."

Ridley Scott, who has been in the movie game longer than anyone else on stage, adds another note of realism.

"Without being negative, this is just a fact — as a functioning filmmaker, it is always art against commerce. The studio has to make money, otherwise we don't make movies. The studio has to put butts on seats. And there is this rumor that audiences turn up with a large bucket of popcorn, and actually don't particularly want to be educated. They just want to be entertained. So there's the rub. So there's always that little discussion between the smart studio heads who are aware it's great if you walk out learning something, but it doesn't have to be in every movie. So it's a tricky one, because they have to make money to exist."

Damon adds "Ridley and I can say, as guys who work in Hollywood — if you are looking to Hollywood to answer the questions..." He doesn't finish his sentence, as he's drowned out by audience laughter.

While he is realistic, Damon is hopeful that perhaps his movie will make a small difference in advancing humans getting to Mars.

"It's funny, Drew Goddard, who adapted the screenplay — when I sat and talked with him, it was the first thing he said — I want this to be a love letter to science. And we had a long conversation about that — how that's a really wonderful thing to put out into the world right now. I don't have any lofty expectations, but I do hope that some kids see it and geek out in science and enjoy it. And maybe it's one thing amongst many other things in their life that might push them in that direction."

It's a hopeful place to end, and fascinating to see moviemakers and hard-science folks all on the same page, something that isn't too common. But I can't resist asking Damon and Scott one more question after the event, something that will make sense to those who have read the book or seen the movie. Do either of them still eat potatoes?

"No!" Damon booms with a laugh, at the same time that Scott smiles and adds, "Love them! I still eat them, all the time."


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