Two movies from two eras: the same false hope for space enthusiasts?

Credit: Nasa

Science fiction fans are trembling with anticipation for The Martian, the Ridley Scott-directed adaptation of Andy Weir’s blockbuster novel. Earlier this week the movie’s producers held a publicity event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Select journalists watched sneak-peeks of the movie before touring JPL’s space exploration labs. 

The event focused on Nasa’s deep involvement in the movie's production. The Martian “merges the fictional and factual narratives about Mars,” Nasa said in its press release which features nine examples of technologies in the movie that the space agency is developing today.

Predictably enough the reporters geeked out. Articles from media like  The Los Angeles Times, io9Popular Science, and CNET gushed about the visions of Mars:

But ‘Martian,’ said [Nasa planetary science director Jim] Green, could be a launchpad for a generation that develops and benefits from technologies tied to reaching Mars. In other words, it could be great publicity for hoped-for manned missions to Mars…. NASA experts have consulted on other movies, but Green saw this go-about as beyond anything he’d seen in three decades on the job.
— Los Angeles Times
‘What [NASA’s] done in the last 50 years is quite extraordinary, and I hope the film does it justice,’ [The Martian director Ridley] Scott told us. That symmetry was obviously the aim from the beginning…. And that’s why NASA is embracing something like The Martian. It may be straight up science fiction, but it’s as based in science as it can be. It shows something that could potentially happen in our lifetime and it does that with a sense of Hollywood flare that gets people to notice.
— io9
Space… cannot simply be cool. It must be compelling. It must be part of the conversation…. So if you want to understand why it is that NASA loves The Martian and is so gung ho for this movie, you have to realize that this movie more or less presents exactly their future vision, minus all the drama.
— Popular Science
It takes years to design, build, launch and land new spacecraft for any NASA mission, so Hollywood can sometimes fill the gap between big missions and milestones to keep the public interested in space exploration. “Gravity” and “Interstellar” come to mind, and now “The Martian” could do the same.

But Hollywood’s influence on Nasa is hard to see. Space enthusiasts thought the spate of Mars-related movies at the turn of the century would usher in a wave of support for Nasa. It may be just as well that Hollywood does not affect Nasa's fortunes. Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, and Red Planet had mixed results at the box office and universally bombed with the critics. The Martian promises to be more grounded in Nasa's Mars science and engineering, but realism doesn’t give a movie any more influence over public opinion.

Coincidently Wired ran an article about an ultra-realistic science fiction movie from an earlier era in the Space Age. “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey” looks at the approach Stanley Kubrick took when producing his now-classic film. 

Even as Kubrick and his team… were creating a fictive future set in space, NASA was racing to put a man on the moon. The set and props in 2001: A Space Odyssey had to dramatically outpace the emerging technology, lest NASA succeed while they were filming and make Kubrick’s vision appear outdated, or, worse, flat-out wrong.
— Wired

Kubrick used Nasa’s rapid progress in the early 1960’s to extrapolate an American future in space four decades away. That future never happened. As Kubrick released his film in 1968, Washington was cutting Nasa’s budget. America won the race to the Moon. Other priorities took over. Nasa’s budget had already fallen 25% the year 2001 hit movie theaters and fell another 50% over the next decade. The film achieved cult status, but it's vision is as far away now as it was then.

Weir’s two-decade extrapolation has a much less optimistic view of progress than Kubrick's. The Mars mission of his novel replaces sentient computers, spaceplanes, and cities on the Moon with inflatable habitats and potatoes. Lots of potatoes. But Weir and Kubrick have one thing in common: as Weir published his novel in 2011, Washington was cutting Nasa’s budget.

No movie can fix the problems that keep Nasa from going boldy into space. The American public’s opinion of Nasa - it’s great but there are better ways to spend the money - is too shallow to support bigger Nasa budgets. Even worse, Nasa's budget may fall over the next year thanks to Washington’s zero-sum-partisanship, fiscal cliffs, and sequestration.

So go watch The Martian. Enjoy it. But remember it’s just a movie. Like 2001 before it, The Martian will say more about today’s world than tomorrow’s. Forty years from now Weir’s vision of space exploration may seem as retro as Kubrick’s does today.

Whether Nasa’s vision of Mars will fare any better is a question for Washington, not Hollywood.