It’s 4: pm on July 20, 1969 on a quiet street in the yet-to-be Yuppie-ized suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. My infant daughter is propped up in her kid carrier plus cushions on the backyard swing while her 4-year old brother keeps cool in an inflated pool. We’re building a porch ourselves off the back of the colonial house we purchased the previous year (for $28,000). While I hold a 2′ x 4′ steady, my husband hammers it into place. In case the date doesn’t immediately resonate with you (confession: I had to Wiki it for precision), it is the day three American astronauts landed on the moon. We have a small black and white TV with a long extension cord sitting on a plank-saw horse stand, and we are, like millions of other people, waiting for the words soon to be uttered by Commander Neil A. Armstrong: The Eagle has landed. Cheering broke out from houses all around us. Reading the log of Apollo 11 now still gives me goosebumps. That Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. was a Montclair boy and would next year be marching in our July 4th parade, only adds spice to the momentous occasion.
After a week that brought personal horror and loss to many people, and unleashed a firestorm of paranoid, xenophobic trash-talking that recalls the worse of the McCarthy era here, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and a sterling supporting cast, was a balm for the soul. And not only because it recalls a time when for a few days, large numbers of people put aside their national identities and petty concerns and celebrated ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap …”
In case you’ve yet to see the film, I’m not going to spoil it for you with too many details about ‘the making of…’ which you could better read afterward. You’ll turn up a lot via a Google search, but one of my favorite citations is about the central role played by the Jet Propulsion Lab in getting the details accurate. Suffice to say that: “The Martian” is steeped in decades of real-life Mars exploration that JPL has led for NASA. If they handed out film awards for length of time on camera, Matt Damon would win hands down (though Sandra Bullock in Gravity, another plausible space adventure, comes close). But as space castaway/astronaut, Mark Watney, Damon earns his actor stripes in perhaps his best performance to date. See interview with director, Ridley Scott, for a fascinating glimpse into how the film was made.
My takeaways on The Martian (and why you must see it), in no particular order:
- It makes a strong case for science education
- It reinserts NASA and JPL into the public consciousness at a time when funding is falling
- We see the important role of international cooperation (U.S. and China) — the Russians get left out of this one
- We are reminded of our common humanity, the risks we will take to save the life of another
- It helps put into perspective the current political climate and reminds us we are better than media suggests we are.
It bears repeating that we owe a great deal to the space program (by-pass surgery and digital photography, the tip of the iceberg), and this Thanksgiving week seems like a good time to acknowledge that. If The Martian gets you newly excited about and appreciative of science as a worthy human enterprise, and awakens your support for the space program in particular, mission accomplished!