The Martian and NASA


So basically this week has been consumed by The Martian, for better or for worse. In a way it’s been great, it’s rekindling my interest in science though I’m aware I still suck at it. Overall it’s just a really well done book - I had my reservations at first about the writing style (I don’t particularly like first person writing), but it really enhanced the storytelling process and it’s intriguing how in this instance the experience of the book and the movie enriched each other rather than feeling like the movie was a mere imitation of a greater thing.

Nonetheless, ineviably you end up surfing the internet looking for various news and media about the thing you’re obsessing over, and one is an article about rediscovering the real reason for going into space. That’s ‘because it’s hard’ by the way, which I take to mean they like a good challenge. But it was this section that got to me:

In the Cold War years, as John F. Kennedy said, Americans flew space missions “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” After the Soviet threat vanished, NASA’s mantra became “faster, better, cheaper.” There was a new timidity, enforced by a penny-pinching Congress.

That penny-pinching is now worse than ever. And it makes a certain sense. Unless you believe, like Elon Musk, that we need to colonize Mars in case Earth is wiped out, there’s no reason to send people there.

It’s the ‘penny pinching’ part which I want to highlight, which made me wonder why NASA in this story would really spend such billions and billions on dollars on saving one man trapped on Mars. The author is quick to highlight the human condition where we want to band together and help people in tragic situations, but I still don’t know if it’s a good enough argument. Perhaps the reason NASA is eager to back this book/movie project is that it honestly puts them in quite a good light.

I was randomly reading Wikipedia while failing to concentrate on work one day - specifically the articles about the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster. It was interesting and yet also saddening to seeing how poor judgement, groupthink and a widespread mindset about a situation can result in tragedy.

The was in regards to the NASA’s investigation as to why the Challenger disaster happened:

"The space agency," wrote space reporter William Harwood, "stuck to its policy of strict secrecy about the details of the investigation, an uncharacteristic stance for an agency that long prided itself on openness."

Perhaps they’d learned in the ensuing years that there is an absolute need for openness and would not longer be so secretive, or I could have seen Watney’s demise being swept under a table for a greater good..hmm. Nonetheless, I’m going to assume that what they mean in this article is that they realise exploring space is not just about the glory, but about learning more and will step up their processes for higher quality ones, rather than shooing new missions out door despite obvious complications highlighted by the advisors you hired to advise. Or engineers you hired to engineer?

I’m surprised in many ways that in the book Watney’s systems held up for as long as they did, given that much of what is produced by NASA during these incidents seems less than perfect, but I guess I’m only seeing part of a greater picture - I like science and space, but I don’t keep up with it, like I don’t keep up with most things. Not to mention there were plenty of disasters in the book as well, almost anything that could go wrong did. Regardless, it was a good insight into a different universe - so to speak.