Posts Tagged Mars

Beauty In Outer Space

One of my three science fiction novels is about a group of explorers who land on a distant planet in an attempt to see if it could be colonized by people of their civilization.  Many things go wrong on that planet, and that leads most of the group to consider it as dangerous and unattractive, a place to be avoided at all costs.  But a couple of explorers find the planet exciting and beautiful.  They are willing to look beyond the death and destruction to see the planet for what it is, a lovely and inspiring place on which they could live.

Fine.  But that got me to thinking, what are we likely to find when we get into outer space and see planets and moons and asteroids and comets up close?  What will we think once we land on them and take a good look around?  Will we think of them as “beautiful?”  Or will they be little more than desolate blobs of dust orbiting a hot, blistering sun?

Over the past fifty or so years of the US space program, we’ve seen a lot of images taken on the surface of two major celestial objects in our solar system, Mars and the moon.  Astronauts on the moon (the only body outside the Earth mankind has walked on) took many spectacular photographs of their moonwalks (largely on film, mind you) and brought them back for us to wonder at.  Several unmanned robotic travelers have landed on Mars and tantalized us with more vivid images, and the European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet.  All three sets of images show a largely barren landscape, though to a great extent that was planned since it’s much easier and much safer to land a spacecraft on a smooth surface than on one littered with rocks.  (The Russians did land a spacecraft on Venus, but its few images don’t show much.)  I don’t know about you, but I found the landscapes of Mars and moon to be rather plain and not terribly lovely or “beautiful” in the usual sense of that word.  They are stark, and in themselves compelling in a minimalist sense.  But not “beautiful” in comparison to, say, an evening sunset on the Rocky Mountains, or an autumn  landscape of the woodlands of Vermont.  Just my opinion here.

Still, in our solar system are planets and moons that we haven’t landed on (and in most cases I hope we don’t), and from above they show many various mottled and unique surfaces.  I imagine that the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io would be a fascinating place on which to stand.  With volcanoes that spout liquid sulfur, and lava flows and what not, it might be intriguing.  (Dangerous, too.)  But would we characterize it as “beautiful,” especially in comparison with the Earth?  I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  We might have to come up with new adjectives to describe the new worlds we encounter.

Nothing we’ve ever seen on any image returned from outer space even begins to compare with the beauty of the surface of the Earth.  But we’ve only just begun to explore.  Who knows what we will encounter when we land on planets and moons of other solar systems.  Will we think of them as “beautiful?”  Do you think of the moon or Mars as “beautiful?”

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The Martian

I went to see the movie “The Martian” about a week ago and was impressed.  I thought it well done, well-acted within limits, and all around a good show.  I’m not ready to add it to my list of favorite movies (which you can access on this blogsite), but I liked it.  Some reviewers have said they felt Matt Damon was miscast as the astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars when all his buddies leave the surface because of a tremendous wind and sand storm that threatens to blow over their ascent vehicle, but I disagree.  I felt he did a good job.  To continue the plot line, his comrades have to make a decision whether to go or not.  If they don’t , the vehicle could be tipped over and everyone will be stranded.  So the thrust of the story is to get the one stranded astronaut off the surface alive, and get him back to Earth.  An interesting concept.

I’m putting aside here the one glaring mistake in the movie (and in the book) that a wind/sand storm on Mars could blow over a spaceship.  In reality, it wouldn’t have enough force to do that because the atmosphere is so thin that even at one hundred miles an hour, there’s too little air to move.  If you suspend belief in that one fact, the movie becomes logical and reasonable, and I highly recommend it.  What I want to focus on for the sake of this post is the relationship between the book and the movie.

During the movie, I found myself thinking about the detail in the book that wasn’t in the movie.  Movies are great, as I’ve stated before, for doing special effects.  And “The Martian” was no different.  I was impressed by the spaceships, the habitat on the Martian surface, the Martian landscape, and so forth.  But the book is so much more detailed than the movie.  Many things that were just glossed over in the movie were treated in considerable detail in the book.  The author, Andy Weir, goes into a lot of detail in many places.  Especially, I remember, about how Watney was going to travel from the habitat where he’d been living, to an ascent vehicle that would get him off the surface.  He had to travel several hundred kilometers and Weir went into considerable detail about the trip, working out the details, how much energy it would take, loading the rover vehicle that would take him there, and so forth.  In the movie, Watney simply did it, and left much to the viewers to figure out for themselves.  It works, and you can handle the situation that way, but the book is better.

Additionally, Watney in the book expresses himself more.  Rarely does Watney in the movie lose his cool, yet he did several times in the book.  This, I feel, is the one real drawback to the movie.  Watney is almost too cool.

All this reveals the real drawbacks about translating a book onto the screen.  Detail can be lost, and this kept bothering me.  Perhaps it’s my scientific training, but I would have liked to hear more about what Watney was going to do as the movie went along.  I realize, of course, that that would make the movie horribly long, and the producers had to cut something.  As it was, the movie was 141 minutes anyway.  That’s 2 hours and 21 minutes, long for a movie.  Any more detail would certainly have been boring and interminable, and the producers did the best they could.  If you want detail, read the book.  This is another reason why I feel that if any of my sci-fi books ever get published I will not let a movie be made from them (assuming someone wants to in the first place).  Books are more detailed, and in that detail lies the essentials of the plot.  Read the book.  Make up your own mind.  Savor the detail.  That’s what a book is for.

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The One-Way Trip

There’s a Dutch nonprofit corporation called Mars One which has put forward a plan to send a team of humans to Mars in or around 2025.  The trip is a one-way affair: you go there and don’t come back.  It’s an audacious plan, granted, and seems to be, at this stage of the game, well engineered and well funded.  They called for volunteers and received 200,000 responses.  I’d love to go and be one of the first people to set foot on Mars—it’d be fabulously exciting—and I’d volunteer, but I’m way too old and way too nearsighted I’m sure, so I won’t be among those who make the first trip.  It’s a shame, but in a way I’m glad I’m not going.

My reason for not going, over and above the two I mentioned above, has nothing to do with the danger—and there’s plenty of that—nor with the fact that it’s a one-way trip.  It’s due to something I just realized while reading an article about the project this past week.  (See the December, 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, page 22.)  It’s something more prosaic.  It has to do with comfort.

Yes, comfort.  Mars One is asking people to make an extremely hazardous journey all the way to another planet, land and set up a colony and live there for the rest of their lives.  New people will be coming later, to be sure, and supplies will be sent at regular intervals (I hope).  But the basic concept is that the first explorers will live in smallish habitats that look like truncated Apollo capsules for the rest of their lives.  I can’t imagine it.

The Apollo capsule held only three men and was designed for an eight-day trip to the moon and back.  Eight days in that capsule I can see.  It was just large enough to get the job done.  But not tor the rest of someone’s life.  Granted Mars One has designed their habitat to consist of several capsules situated side-by-side with tunnels between to make it easy to move from one capsule to another without having to put on a spacesuit and go outside.  Still, they are smallish capsules, with limited interior comforts, and that is what is so disconcerting.  This isn’t an eight-day trip.  This is for the rest of the explorer’s lives.  Were I to make the trip, I’d want a hell of a lot more.  And that’s especially true for some one in his/her thirties or forties who could reasonably look forward to thirty or forty more years of life.  (I assume the life expectancy on Mars is less than that on Earth, though.)  And they’re going to live in those modules?  For all that time?  If the Mars mission were as simple as a two year trip to the red planet, then return, I could see it.  But it’s not.

An explorer on Mars can’t just get in a car or an airplane and take a vacation to the Grand Canyon or the Bahamas or Italy or some such destination.  They’re basically stuck at or near the landing site.  Getting out just to do something simple as taking out the garbage will be a chore.  Comfort—yes, comfort—will be far more important and significant than the designers seem to realize.  I suggest that each explorer or couple should have a module all to themselves.  There will have to be a large recreation module, large enough for parties, movies and other large-ticket items such as a running track.  Even a tennis court or basketball court.  A swimming pool.  A golf course.  A softball diamond.  Expecting people to spend thirty or forty years in those modules that have already been designed is unrealistic.  Even for a couple of years just waiting for the next wave of explorers is far too much.  Cabin fever (or module fever, if you will) will be a big deal.

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