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NASA’s next space race is coming soon to a theater near you

Here's what's really inside NASA's flying saucer.


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 9, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 3:21 pm CDT

In The Martian, the bestselling novel by Andy Weir and upcoming Ridley Scott film starring Matt Damon, astronaut Mark Watney must use his skills as a botanist to survive for four years while stranded on Mars. The book has been applauded for its realism and science-based action: Actual astronaut Chris Hadfield, he of the first music video in space, hailed The Martian’s “fascinating technical accuracy.” Weir even had his father, a particle physicist, double check the book’s science. 

Far from its sci-fi brethren, the action of The Martian never takes the form of exaggerated explosions, mind-bending theoretical physics, or extraterrestrial wars. Large portions of the book consist of Watney explaining the particulars of growing potatoes in an enclosed environment or specific minutiae of Martian geography. The Martian is a cerebral and often hilarious thriller that illuminates the very real dangers of exploring the Red Planet.

When reading the book, it’s often very difficult to imagine how Ridley Scott (and screenwriter Drew Goddard) will retain the hefty amount of education Watney gives readers while still making a Hollywood blockbuster. While the narrative of the book does leave Mars in parts, mostly by checking in with NASA’s efforts to save Watney, the vast majority of the story is Watney doing calculations in order to save his own life (Ars Technica calls him “Math MacGyver”). 

This isn’t exactly the kind of content that makes for great popcorn material. Although the trailer sells the movie well and the cast is chock full of big, talented names, it’s not entirely clear how the film will keep the thrilling pace of the book without losing the story’s reliance on dense scientific material.

In many ways, NASA is facing the same issue, as their scientists are working harder and harder to get real people on Mars. With the shuttle program closed for the foreseeable future, increasing competition from the private sector, and likely 20 years between today and any possible mission to Mars, NASA’s biggest threat isn’t the vast unknown. It’s falling out of public favor. 

For an agency that relies on funding from the federal government, keeping attention and making headlines is less of a PR issue and more of an existential one. Much like The Martian, NASA must capture the public’s imagination while retaining the value of its science. Oftentimes, it seems as if NASA—and the world of astrophysics as a whole—feels a deep need to compete with Hollywood’s depictions of space travel. 

Just this week, NASA went through with its first test flight of what the agency proudly hails as its “flying saucer.” Far from the spinning, floating Mars Attacks!-style UFOs that term might bring to mind, the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, as the saucer is actually called, is a vital part of landing heavy spaceships on Mars without crashing them to the surface. While Mars rovers have entered the atmosphere through a parachute system since the 1970s, the LDSD would actually use parachutes combined with rocket boosters to slowly deliver any payload to the Martian surface.

While the LDSD is still an interesting and vital part of the lengthy process that will take a human to Mars, it’s not quite the “flying saucer” NASA sold the media. And that’s completely fine! I’d much rather NASA take their mission seriously than alter their goals based on public perception or sci-fi fanboyism. But it is a symptom of NASA having to meet the false expectations Hollywood has given Americans on the realities of space travel. After all, just look at the disappointed press coverage when the LSDS test failed.

Someone famous for spoiling those expectations is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. While not actually an employee of NASA, Tyson has proudly taken on the role of space’s ambassador to the American people. In his top-rated reworking of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Tyson led millions of Americans (and lazy substitute teachers) on a journey through the deep end of astrophysics and space travel. Through his frequent appearances on late night comedy, his active Twitter feed, and his podcast StarTalk, Neil deGrasse Tyson is perhaps doing more than any one person to keep America’s interest in space alive.

But even here, he must do so through the narratives of Hollywood. His reboot of Cosmos is heavily invested in the space travel imagery provided by science fiction classics; Tyson even “travels” the universe in a CGI spaceship dubbed the “Ship of the Imagination.” His public persona, especially on Twitter, has become rooted in teaching the public about space through correcting the mistakes of Hollywood films, be it Gravity or Titanic.

Perhaps one of the loudest advocates for space travel is not NASA or Neil deGrasse Tyson but Elon Musk, the billionaire genius behind SpaceX, the largest private space travel endeavor in the world. While also having to deal with the more grinding aspects of space flight, Musk has captured headlines not by painting SpaceX’s accomplishments in sci-fi glory but by portraying space travel as a race to save humanity. 

In a lengthy interview on the topic with Aeon Magazine, Musk said the future of the human race depends on “making life multi-planetary.” For Musk, colonizing Mars is less a scientific endeavor and more a “safeguard [for] the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct.”

Musk is not the only major scientific player using such drastic language. Stephen Hawking—who himself popularized many scientific concepts with his digestible bestseller A Brief History of Time—has said humanity will not survive another millennium “without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” 

It should be noted that these aren’t criticisms of NASA, Tyson, Musk, or Hawking. Space travel can be very exciting and interesting on its own merits, and using the structure or imagery of science fiction to impart its importance to a mass audience is not really a bad thing. Even NASA will shoot down fulfillments of sci-fi dreams when they aren’t grounded in science, as they did when rumors of a faster-than-light “warp drive” began to circulate the Internet. 

What is interesting, however, is how much the movie industry can be a flagship for making the kinds of space travel we see in movies a reality.

One of the more interesting trends in recent film is the rise of realistic depictions of space travel. Star Wars and Star Trek are safely shielded from criticism because they take place in largely fantastical realms—or so far into the future we can assume anything is possible. 

But recently, films like Gravity, Interstellar, and now The Martian have hinged on being as realistic and grounded in scientific fact and theory. While both Gravity and Interstellar have been subject to some criticism—here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s breakdown of the former—they both strive to tell a Hollywood-level plot through the real rigor of space. In doing so, Hollywood is taking on the mission NASA has struggled with for years: Keeping Americans interested while remaining true to the science.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Fresh Movie Trailers/YouTube

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*First Published: Jun 9, 2015, 8:14 pm CDT