"Public support is seen as crucial to the agency as it works to make due on a promise to send humans to the red planet within 20 years. As excitement regarding the potential to travel to, land, and possibly even live on Mars grows, scientists say it could prop up NASA's missions and help secure ongoing funding. This week, a number of scientists heralded the film's factual accuracy, NASA announced a breakthrough discovery regarding flowing water on the red planet, and a rare blood moon on Sunday attracted a significant amount of attention on social media sites. The momentum has set the film up for a solid opening weekend, with Fandango reporting that pre-sales for "The Martian" are exceeding those of the 2013 sci-fi thriller "Gravity." Box office tracking company BoxOffice.com estimates the film will rake in $56 million this weekend."
Keith's note: OK, so lets just say for a moment that a visually stunning movie about an adventure on a strange new world sets box office records and goes on to make a billion dollars or more. In the process media visibility is relentless and the movie sells itself through word of mouth and a creative PR campaign. And oh yes, the real NASA is part of the PR effort. Well, take out the NASA part and the film I was describing was "Avatar". A couple of years later "Gravity" had a smaller, but similar effect. And Last year's "Interstellar" made its mark with some distinction as well.
Where is the budget bump for NASA directly (or even indirectly) attributable from these films? Did NASA's astrobiology and extrasolar planets budget get a big bump? ("Avatar"). How about human spaceflight? ("Gravity") Breakthrough propulsion and astrophysics? ("Interstellar"). Did Congress introduce bills inspired by any of these bills? Did the White House initiate any new legislative efforts? Did a citizen's movement arise and deluge Congress and the White House with letters asking for more support for space exploration thus causing a policy pivot? No.
Ignoring recent history (as space advocates regularly do) the usual space advocacy suspects have been trumpeting "The Martian" as a game changer for NASA and space exploration. Will it have an effect on inspiring young people? Of course it will - as did all of the other films I mentioned plus others. Decades ago like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Trek" shaped my future career (and still do). And the inspiration in the near term may grown and evolve into something more pervasive and real in years to come. No one doubts that these movies can affect people in a life altering way. But there's not going to be special congressional committees called into existence to respond to citizen demands as a result of "The Martian" - since there will be no such demands.
NASA has been closely linked to PR and education and public outreach in connection with the movie - a wise, excellent decision. So far NASA has conducted itself perfectly, using the film to help explain basic things that it does and when drama trumps science, why this was done and what the real science is. They also helped the producers make it as close to reality as is practical with any scifi drama. There is no downside to this. Well, actually there is: NASA has nowhere near the budget for the Mars stuff in the film and what work it is already engaged in is beset with cost overruns and significant delays. But the movie goers aren't going to see a budget presentation. They are going to see a story. Maybe they will walk out of the theater with that story playing in their head. And perhaps some time in the near (or far) future when asked about space in a poll, or to vote for someone who mentions space, they might see their actions driven by this film (and others). But signing petitions and engaging in organized lobbying? I think not. Its just a movie.
But if people make humans to Mars something that they own as a result of seeing this film - something that they internalize personally - or see as what their children want to do, then you have to nucleus of a chance to sway policy decisions. This only happens if you plant the seed and nourish it. And this interest should not be forced to conform to the tired, broken tactics that Space advocates use (i.e. talking to one another but not the 99.999% who are not in the room). Rather it should be sought out in poor inner city schools or farming communities - not just magnet/charter schools in rich suburban communities. If space advocates want to so this space stuff for all humanity then they need to involve all of humanity.
This magical change that the space advocates expect will arise and will alleviate all of NASA's woes will not happen. Movies - even the most popular and successful - have yet to affect NASA's space policy. As my long-time friend Alan Ladwig noted, no one makes movies about NIH (or NSF) but their budgets go up without that cinematic boost. As far as NASA is concerned I (and Alan!) would sincerely love to be wrong - but I do not see it happening with "The Martian".
But this film will have a positive impact even if it's impact invisible at the moment. And other movies will follow with similar impacts. NASA will derive its best benefit from this and future scifi movies in terms of soft power - not from an onslaught of loud space advocates doing a march up the Mall in Washington demanding money for NASA. Rather, it starts with a student paying a little extra attention to a hard class in school this month - or changing their major next year. Maybe its a new merit badge in scouting or an interest in greenhouses or hacking an Arduino board to do something new. Maybe its a parent picking a different birthday present. Or maybe its a slowly building gut feeling that there are things out there that need to be explored. And the secret to this is education. Alas, NASA's education system, however well-intentioned, has been underfunded, uncoordinated, and mismanaged for decades. That needs to be fixed if NASA wants to have the next generation equipped and able to engage in the adventures the agency wants to embark upon.
Space exploration supporters in general need to take a lesson from "The Martian's" Watney - and "Insterstellar's" Cooper: become farmers and grow an army of supporters no matter where the potential supporters may live. The place to start is where those supporters actually are in terms of their dreams and interests. You can't force your dreams onto someone else.
When you set out to grow a tree you do not hammer a stick of wood into the ground and just walk away. You plant a seed or a seedling and then wait. And you nurture when needed. Space advocates need to put aside their hammers.