The Martian promotional poster

Does ‘The Martian’ Point Out NASA’s Risk-Averse Culture?

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is receiving both critical praise and commercial success, and deservedly so. Not only does Matt Damon get to redeem himself from his cowardly actions after being stranded on another planet in the Christopher Nolan film “Interstellar,” but it presents an emotionally lifting epic embedded in nail-biting hard-science fiction.

While others will debate the obvious, “Is that scientifically possible or feasible?” I was also curious about questions concerning the political and policy machinations involved in a manned mission to Mars gone wrong.

Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon in a scene from “The Martian.” Credit: 20th Century Fox

For those unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a brief summary with only mild spoilers beyond what’s seen in the trailers. Wind from a storm on Mars’ surface threatens to tip over the lander module of a manned NASA mission. The lander is the crew’s only way back to the orbiter, and therefore its only way back to Earth. The commander (Jessica Chastain) decides not to risk such a possibility and orders an evacuation. During the scramble back to the lander, the botanist (Damon) is hit by a communications antenna and then presumed dead. The commander orders to abandon the mission and leave Mars, not knowing that the botanist survived the incident and is now stranded.

NOTE: Before I get into the discussion, I feel the obligation to counter the narrative that NASA would do such a mission on its own. NASA is not able to sustain a station orbiting Earth without the help of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and to a lesser extent the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. So to believe that the U.S. could muster the necessary funding and political will to send a manned multi-mission to Mars is Hollywood magic indeed.

Getting that out of the way, I can discuss the objective here: Would NASA act like it did in trying to save its astronauts? So I asked Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, who has written several books about the history of the space program. I explained the movie scenario since he hadn’t yet seen it.

Roger thought the possibility of the lander tipping over during a storm seemed somewhat unrealistic considering how thoroughly NASA’s scientists and engineers consider environmental concerns when running through its mission scenarios. He thought the space agency would anticipate the dust storm’s plausible strength and then build a vehicle capable of withstanding it.

Although that was not one of my questions, it’s an excellent point. If the storm was not some freak occurrence, why would they not have been prepared for such a scenario? During the movie, the crew said the storm was bigger than they had anticipated, but is that likely? Even now, there are several probes orbiting the red planet, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. So, weather events on Mars shouldn’t be too surprising.

If such a surprisingly strong Martian storm did threaten to topple the lander, however, what is NASA’s view of astronaut safety versus mission completion? In other words, is NASA risk averse?  Surely, with a manned mission to Mars there is a great deal of intrinsic risk. “I don’t think NASA’s risk averse,” Roger said. “Space is inherently dangerous.”

Steven Jones
Steven Jones, the alleged shooter who killed one student and wounded three others at Northern Arizona University Oct. 9, 2015. Credit: Northern Arizona University photo

Actually, Roger believes it’s U.S. society that is risk averse, “almost schizophrenic” about astronaut safety, especially when compared to more blasé attitudes concerning all-too-common dangers like mass shootings, vehicular safety or heart attacks. These more mundane dangers are seen as almost routine and inevitable, he said. Certain dangers are tolerable but others are not, he continued.

Then Roger went on to point out the great risks NASA astronauts have already met in sending humans to space and even training them to go there.  There have been 18 fatalities involving the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space programs during space missions (although none in space itself) and another 14 deaths during training and preparation for such missions. There have also been many other non-fatal accidents, including the heroic and successful return of the Apollo 13 astronauts after an in-flight explosion of one of its oxygen tanks and the fire on board Russia’s Mir space station after a docking accident with a Progress resupply craft.

But Roger acknowledged that leaving an astronaut stranded would prove an especially agonizing tragedy for the public to tolerate. He pointed out the 1999 revelation that Nixon speechwriter William Safire had written a speech for the then-president to deliver in case the Apollo 11 astronauts had not been able to return from the moon’s surface as planned.

Indeed it would seem NASA is not risk averse, as Roger so astutely pointed out, but simply careful. It’s sending women and men into the void and it just wants to do so as safely as possible. That’s just smart.

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