Martian Thoughts

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I finally saw The Martian this week, thanks to some encouragement from Richard McConachy. I loved it for all the reasons many people have. But I had an additional reason to love one scene, as it reminded me of one of the largely unknown stories of Australian science.

Bit of a spoiler warning.

Towards the end of the film where Watney is lightening the load on the MAV to allow it to go high enough to meet the Hermes craft. He throws (and blasts) various bits of no doubt very expensive equipment off the MAV as if they were worthless junk, which under the circumstances they are.

This reminded me of a story told to me by David Cooke (one of the scientists in my book) who worked at the Parkes observatory for many years, including during the Apollo mission. Parkes was not intended to have a role in the Apollo 13 mission, with NASA choosing to use one of the smaller Australian telescopes. However, when everything went pear-shaped it was realized that Parkes was the only radio telescope in Australia (or indeed our timezones) capable of communicating with the craft in its damaged state.

Naturally NASA commandeered The Dish for saving the astronaut’s lives. The telescope was being used for deep space astronomy at the time and carrying equipment that was unsuited to the new purpose. Time was naturally of the essence, and it took too long to send equipment down in the lifts as well as bringing the new receivers up. So highly expensive antenna and imaging devices were simply taken to the edge of the Dish and dropped off the side. I don’t know if anyone bothered to place mattresses around the bottom in the hope of salvaging something, or if they were just allowed to smash.

Besides being amused by this story, it also serves as a reminder of just how little money matters when an astronaut’s life is in danger. Watching the film I wondered briefly whether the US and Chinese governments really would be willing to spend the vast amounts required to bring a single astronaut home should circumstances such as seen in film occur.

The answer, I think, is yes. Of course the costs involved in The Martian, amusingly parodied in this meme, would be far larger than a few smashed receivers. However, by Cooke’s account, no one blinked an eyelid at the cost. There are many reasons for this, but one is that public pressure demanded it.

Millions of people die each year who could be saved with food or medical supplies that would cost a few dollars, but when we know the individual’s name, let alone have become attached to their personality, no expense is spared. That’s not intended as a criticism. I want people to care more about the starving children they know nothing about, but I don’t think that need be achieved by caring less about the person they see on the nightly news.

We can’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to save every endangered person on Earth, and maybe that means we shouldn’t spend that much just because someone happens to be prominent, but we should always want to.

The dust storm that kicks The Martian off is many times more powerful than anything the red planet is capable of. But that aside it is largely scientifically accurate.  And I think it also gets the psychology and politics pretty much right as well.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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