NASA, China, and The Martian

20th Century Fox poster
20th Century Fox poster

Retired astronaut Clayton C. Anderson clearly enjoyed Ridley Scott’s The Martian (as well as Andy Weir’s book on which it’s based). He favorably nods to the usual things found in film reviews, like acting and cinematography. But for him “the highlight was the film’s refreshing and inspiring depiction of NASA, ” in particular “the collaborative efforts of all the teams,” the kind of teamwork he experienced during his 30 years with the space program.

Although it’s been over a week since I saw The Martian, I keep thinking about it. I loved this real-science sci-fi film. Part of my admiration is similar to Anderson’s – the depiction of NASA employees. You see, I’m tangentially connected to the space program through my stepfather, a retired “rocket scientist,” as he likes to say, whose long aerospace career spanned from working on the Air Force’s Titan IIIC rocket booster to NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

The scenes that thrilled me the most were those involving the China National Space Agency (CNSA), as well as the montage showing excited masses of Chinese and Americans simultaneously watching  the giant screen, live-streamed conclusion to the joint NASA-CNSA rescue mission. Like Anderson, “I reveled in the scenes of international cooperation…. A science fiction survival and rescue story in which one the US’s current adversaries plays a key role in the mission’s success? What a tantalizing and hopeful vision for the future!”

One of the film's locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case - CC BY-SA license - link here
One of the film’s locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case – CC BY-SA license – link here

The Martian is indeed an optimistic film. While its conclusion is predictable – yes, NASA will rescue the title character, stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – the plot flows, punctuated with satisfying  moments of high intensity. And it has an abundance of heroes, from large figures like Watney and Mars spacecraft Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to smaller ones like Mindy Parks (Mackenzie Davis), a young  engineer who spots tell-tell changes in photos of Mars, and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a young nerdy astrodynamicist who devises a risky plan for quickly sending help to Watney.

The surprising hero is the CNSA. Without China’s help, which involves sacrificing part of its own space plans, NASA could not have succeeded in rescuing a living Watney. The science in the film is, for the most part, plausible (e.g., see Inside Science), but the political situation surrounding the decision to accept China as a rescue-mission partner is not – at least not for now. Like Anderson, however, I hope that long before the 2030s,when The Martian takes place, such a collaboration is possible.  

Mars' "Juventae Chasma (11337951926)" by European Space Agency - Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, Juventae Chasma (11337951926)” by European Space Agency – Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

The current snag is an item in the 2011 NASA  Appropriations Bill, which remains in effect: NASA and the Office of Science and Technology shall not “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” (SpacePolicyOnline.com). Fortunately, the ban does not apply to the State Department, which reported that the US and China held their first Civil Space Dialogue in Beijing on 28 September and that another meeting will be held in Washington, DC, in 2016 (for a thoughtful discussion on this meeting and related issues, see China-US Focus).

The Civil Space Dialogue is one of several recent indications that the door may soon widen for US-China space cooperation. A strong indication is summarized in this 12 October Reuters’ headline: “NASA chief says ban on Chinese partnerships is temporary.” It’s a practical matter, NASA chief Charles Bolden argues: If we don’t cooperate with China, which has launched people into orbit and is developing its own space station, “we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody … who has any hope of a human spaceflight program … will go to whoever will fly their people.”

Mars, "Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)" by European Space Agency - Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, “Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)” by European Space Agency. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

For its part, China stands “ready to work together with people from all over the world,” according to Zhou Lini, a Chinese presenter at this past September’s International Astronautical Congress (Spacenews). China, in fact, has signed initial agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos for cooperative use of its Tiangong Space Station, scheduled for launch around 2020 (Space.com 10/14/15). Note that the ESA and Roscosmos (along with the Japanese and Canadian space agencies) are NASA partners on the International Space Station (ISS).

Also China recently signed an agreement with a commercial Houston-based company to send a DNA experiment to the ISS, which will become the first instance of the ISS hosting a Chinese payload. As Joan Johnson-Freese points out, the legislative ban against any kind of NASA-China collaboration (supposedly a ban to prompt China to change its policies on human rights and the like) “hasn’t worked and in some cases has been overtly counterproductive to U.S. interests,” especially “[g]iven that the rest of the world is working with China in space.” She hopes this experiment will be a “positive step forward” toward a better relationship with China and for our own diplomatic and scientific goals (Space.com 8/21/15). So do I.

At the end of The Martian we’re shown American astronaut Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) launching into space beside a Chinese astronaut, presumably on a joint US-China mission. Delightful! Hopeful.

Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source
Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source

Note: I highly recommend reading Eric Betz’s “Behind the Science of The Martian”  in Astronomy online. The article focuses on some of the science that went into the making the film – and includes great images too.

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