On Friday, Matt Damon’s long-awaited sci-fi suspense film The Martian hits the big screen. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, it tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who is stranded on the Red Planet during an expedition, and the furious efforts of his fellow astronauts and NASA to rescue him.
The movie promises to be a thrill-inducing jaunt for movie audiences. On Monday, however, NASA announced that it has “the strongest evidence yet” that salty water may be flowing on Mars. That announcement affirms the possibility that life may exist on another planet—and its implications may be a thrill greater than any movie can provide. It also may push the space agency, U.S. policy makers and the public to dedicate itself even more strongly to our next great adventure in space: a real-life mission to Mars.
“Humankind’s next giant leap in exploration will send astronauts to the Red Planet, where we could finally answer the question: ‘does life exist beyond Earth?’” according to a NASA spokesman. “Mars could prove to be a suitable home for humans one day and even help us better understand how life developed here. The technologies we develop on the journey to Mars and knowledge we learn there will forever change humanity’s future of exploration.”
It’s been an arduous trip into space for humankind in the post-Apollo era. NASA just celebrated the 38th anniversary (how could it have been that long?) of the flight of the space shuttle Enterprise. It was August 12, 1977 when Enterprise, carried to the skies on the back of a Boeing 747, made its initial free flight and landing, giving NASA its first reusable space craft. Its sister space shuttle fleet took off like rockets, landed like airplanes, and conducted 135 missions. During this time 833 astronauts flew into space, conducted experiments and serviced the International Space Station, which still orbits the Earth.
Enterprise is now an exhibit at its permanent home, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City. The July 2011 flight of the space shuttle Atlantis marked the last days of the American shuttle program. Today, NASA relies solely upon the Russian space program to bring U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. The agency, however, has announced its intentions to partner with Boeing and SpaceX and use private sector flights to shuttle to the space station by 2017.
The next logical step in our voyage into space is Mars, and NASA and Hollywood aren’t the only ones looking to the stars. In Buzz Aldrin’s book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration (National Geographic, 2013), the second man to walk on the moon writes “we can dare to dream again and to lead. Let us challenge NASA, challenge the White House to think bigger, challenge ourselves to look beyond the moment, and inspire again a nation in a way that is evocative, at a time when our country is ready for real inspiration, challenge, leadership and achievement.”
And the White House, apparently, is listening. “I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” said President Barack Obama during a recent speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Because broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation, sparking passions and launching careers. And because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.”
The proposed journey to Mars would begin in the early 2020s with a set of crewed flights that would test and prove systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. By 2025, NASA hopes to launch new spacecraft for the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon and into deep space. First, astronauts would land on an asteroid. Then, “by the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to the Earth,” Obama said. “And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”
The Martian is a tale told in an era in which voyages to Mars are commonplace. It may be soon, though, that humans colonizing other planets will be more than just stories that we see in a movie theater. Before long, seeking out strange, new worlds may very well move from the entertainment section to the front pages.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015)
Within 20 years, a vibrant commercial space industry will be flying us to the heavens. In 30 years, we’ll have colonized the moon and Mars. In 50 years, we’ll be mining precious resources from asteroids. And in 100 years, humans born off-planet will grow up never having before seen Earth. In this dazzling vision of the future, Impey shows us how humankind will not merely explore, but thrive in the vast unknown of space.