It’s no question that support for NASA has been in a decline. About two years ago, NASA was faced with serious budget cuts to most of its programs. Included was a $300 million cut for the NASA Planetary Science Division (which houses the Mars Exploration Program), for the fiscal year of 2013. In response to the much smaller budget, NASA announced the next Mars Mission, the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter which would have studied the climate of Mars, and US involvement in the European ExoMars mission were being cancelled.
This has not been the first time NASA has faced budget cuts. Taking up 4.41% of the national spending in 1966, the budget has decreased over the years to a measly 0.47% this year. And by making things more political, NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars by the year 2030 may not become a reality.
But it’s not all bad news. One of the potential solutions is to improve public relations, to make society view NASA in a more positive light and eventually possibly influence government funding. One unlikely solution? Science fiction. Stories have always enthralled us as humans; we identifying with the struggles of characters, and as a result are impacted in profound ways. The stories that we consume through all forms of media are extremely powerful; they move us, leave us in awe, and have to potential to make us think about who we are as people. The most important ability media has, and the most prevalent in science fiction, is the ability to inspire. Science fiction is the only genre that depicts how society could function differently, allowing us to image the future we want, and take the first step of working towards it.
And this storytelling is exactly what NASA takes advantage of by promoting the most recent popular space exploration film in theatres: The Martian.
The movie tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who has been stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead by his crew. With limited supplies, Watney uses ingenuity and perseverance to stay alive. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA and scientists from around the world work continuously to try and bring him home.
NASA sees this movie as an opportunity to reengage the public with space exploration and travel. They have used this publicity to also show their own goals of sending astronauts to Mars in the foreseeable future, and coupled with the revelation of water on Mars just 4 days before theatrical release, interest has never been higher.
This was not the first time NASA has been consulted for realistic space travel in big-budget movies. Just in the last two years, Gravity and Interstellar producers have also worked with the agency. There’s no doubt that there has been a rise in space movies in the past years, but how has the public reacted? Very positive, actually. In a recent survey, more than 50% of citizens in America are in support for a manned Mars mission, and over 65% are certain that it will successfully happen before 2050.
Overall, The Martian doesn’t really make a compelling case for an increase in budget for sending humans to Mars. But what it does make is show us a captivating, optimistic, and very plausible, story about humanity. It may not be enough to overcome the obstacles of Mars exploration for the US, but it has definitely caught the nation’s interest.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer for The Martian: