How 'The Martian' impacted NASA's real-life mission to Mars

‘The Martian’ is easily NASA’s biggest PR accomplishment in half a century, yet its impact on the space agency’s future is still negligible

In today’s fast-paced world of consumer entertainment, spectacle is needed to capture the general public’s attention for a moment. If Trump isn’t hollering something about nuclear warheads or ethnic groups, people are sharing the title of the newest Fast and Furious film or yelling about what superhero film deserves an R rating. Any less exciting company or non-profit must tie themselves to a sensation in order to pick up valuable public recognition. For NASA, no event has better bolstered its image since 1969’s moon landing than the emergence of The Martian as a hit blockbuster.

Space-based blockbusters have experienced an upswing over the last few years, though none support NASA as directly as The Martian. 2013’s Gravity is a disaster movie in which no spaceship survives unexploded. 2014’s Interstellar imagines a future without a NASA. And the biggest Hollywood space movie of them all — with a box office over $2 billion, 0.9 billion of which is domestic — is set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

The Martian stands in sharp contrast. Not only are its heroes NASA’s best and brightest, but it revolves around a trip to Mars, the single biggest mission that the space agency currently plans to accomplish. The pro-science Ridley Scott film isn’t just science fiction, it’s a projection of the accomplishment that a few decades of research and funding could turn into a reality. The accomplishment of landing on Mars, that is, not that of aborting a mission due to a freak sandstorm. The Martian steps its audience through the McGyver-like process of living on Mars, constituting the blockbuster version of edutainment.

The Martian’s feel-good message of scientific progress, bolstered by a 3D-and-IMAX shot in the arm,  grossed it over $605 million worldwide, making it Ridley Scott's highest-earning film yet. It featured numerous real-life NASA tech, from the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator the hero Mark Watney digs up to the habitation module he dubs “the Hab”. Not only is The Martian a Best Picture nominee at the 2016 Oscars, it’s the highest-grossing one on the roster, even beating out Oscar-favorite The Revenant. And, among the top ten grossers of 2015, The Martian stands alongside Inside Out as one of just two non-sequel, non-remake, non-franchise-supported entries.

The Martian’s an original, critically-acclaimed, money-making showpiece about the wonders of science as seen in NASA’s biggest planned mission. In short, if any event could drive the nation towards rabid support of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, this was it.

But it won’t.

At least, not in comparison to the massive support NASA received during the 1960s ‘space race’ which directly contributed to NASA’s highest-profile mission to date, the Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing.

The NASA of 1966 received 4.41% percent of the federal budget. By 2012, more than seven eighths of that total percentage had been trimmed off. Funding cuts are why NASA hasn’t landed on the red planet already. Predictions of a Mars landing have been repeatedly extended, from 1986 in 1980 to 2019 in 1990 to today’s estimate of 2035. Space reporter Leonard David has even joked that his 1979 Future Life article, titled “Mars in ’88,” could still be accurate, as the title’s prediction doesn’t specify which century.  

Funding for NASA comes from the government, which is driven by the population’s hopes, as measured in political capital. A cold war can’t compete with a sci-fi film for political clout. The former relied on the powerful emotion of fear, while the latter stirs trust in the science-based future.

The cold war’s influence on NASA funding is not only unrepeatable in today’s climate, but was inadvisable even at the time. In 1969, the noted American space scientist Dr. Robert Jastrow claimed that the United States’ $4-billion-per-year space travel R&D price tag had economic returns approximating $6 to $8 billion per annum throughout the 1960s. Needless to say, this absurd claim was never substantiated, but the fact that a respected scientist endorsed it — Dr. Jastrow was speaking at a US embassy meeting in London at the time — reveals the state of America’s investment in the space race during the decade.

NASA handled The Martian perfectly, offering the film’s crew extensive support, scheduling a premiere aboard the International Space Station, and announcing the discovery of water on Mars during the opening weekend (though they hold that this was sheer coincidence). They even have a hashtag.

Yet without cold-war paranoia and inflated ROI estimates, NASA won’t capture the same cultural cachet. NASA didn’t respond to a request for this article about the impact of The Martian on it agency, but one thing seems clear: This year’s Oscar-watchers are far more likely to obsess over Leonardo Di Caprio’s first win than the fate of a Mars mission 15 years into the future.

The Martian may be a feather in NASA’s cap, but it won’t inspire the same grandiose hopes and dreams of the ‘60s. That’s not to say the impact will be non-existent. The film’s benefit to NASA may be less measurable than the space race’s impact on the general public, but it could shake new ideas loose within the organization: “Their designs get stuck in your psyche,” NASA director of planetary sciences James Green has said of the film’s impact: “As we move forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t adopt things in their movie for our real habitats that end up on Mars. Helping with the movie may have us rethinking our own designs.”

Most importantly, that inspiration might extend to starry-eyed children who watch the PG-13 film and aspire to be the future of space travel. Martian star Matt Damon certainly agrees, saying that he hopes “some kids see it and geek out on the science, and maybe it’s one of the things that pushes them in that direction”.

Further reading:

Space: “Science fact is more interesting than science fiction”

Space poll: Alien fears & Branson vs. Musk for ‘President of Space’