Friday, 20 February 2009

The Martian Romance

I wangled a brief but highly enjoyable attachment to a department at Kennedy Space Centre into my professional training. I learned a lot there, not least the delightful discovery that a lot of NASA employees really are Trekkies and that science fiction really does seem to inspire people to go into this sort of work. This was pre-Constellation but there was a lot of coridoor speculation at the time about the design of a Mars mission; the general consensus was to wait and see how this was handled in the upcoming film Mission to Mars, and then to plan the actual mission proposal around it.

Mission to Mars was released in the US while I was there. The journey to Mars is one of the highlights of the film - beautifully and credibly filmed, with a very believable spaceship design including zero-G and centrifugal gravity sections. Zero-G simulation seems about right and lack of gravity is key to some of the action scenes. I am sure that, if Constellation does eventually get a Mars shot we will see a spaceship something like this one. M2M doesn't continue in the same vein but skips from genre to genre as the film develops - from arrival in Mars orbit there's a switch to action/survival thriller (the process of entering the atmosphere and landing is completely bypassed, no doubt lying on a cutting-room floor somewhere); later there's an alien mystery to uncover. As in many films, books and games, it seems aliens love to test our intelligence by setting logic puzzles and killing us if we fail to solve them. See Rama, Diamond Dogs, etc. for other examples of this. I have another theory: these are actually not intentional puzzles at all but abandoned baby toys from the Early Alien Learning Centre, no doubt sold in a box marked "suitable for advanced children only - designed to improve your child's hand eye coordination logical reasoning and telekinetic skills."

Films often arrive in pairs - a parallel film Red Planet was also released that season. While much is incredible (I mean rather than credible) there's one brilliant sequence inspired by the Pathfinder / Sojourner landing, where a human crew is landed on Mars using bouncing airbags.

Finally while on the subject of Mars I can't avoid mentioning Voyage by Stephen Baxter. Starting from a Jonbar point - Kennedy is incapacitated but survives the assassination attempt, presumably the bullet is a few millimetres further to the left or something; this is the alternate history in which NASA pursues the original Mars plan (an extension of Apollo) instead of building the Space Shuttle. This is a painfully believable vision of what might have been, and also includes very sensitive treatment of topics such as the involvement of Nazi scientists in NASA's history. As well as the book there is a radio play available on BBC CD which really captures the drama - one episode, the orbital test-flight of a nuclear rocket, is delivered in near real-time, with almost no voice-over, just with sound-effects and comm chatter dialogue.

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