The Martian: Surviving on the Red Planet
By Dr. Jeff Zweerink (Reasons to Believe)
Make no mistake about it—Mars is an extremely hostile place for life. And a new movie called The Martian, which is set to release October 2, seems to understand just how difficult it can be for humans to visit Earth’s neighbor.
Based on a 2011 science fiction novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut stranded on Mars seeking to communicate his dire situation with Earth and survive long enough for rescue. One major aspect of surviving relates to food. Watney has only the food brought from Earth (roughly a month’s supply) yet rescue will take a few years. On Earth, we would expect Watney to forage through the abundant plant and animal life for what can be safely eaten (like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away)—but on Mars, where no detectable life exists, foraging is not an option. Consequently, Watney must grow his own food, but even that option poses considerable challenges.
While Mars hosts a fairly large amount of water, currently that water is mostly frozen underground and contains lots of salt. At minimum, the water must be thawed and purified before it has any value for drinking or growing food. Even the relatively abundant soil on Mars shows little past or present evidence of water, and contains none of the microbial life necessary for growing plants here on Earth. Furthermore, the radiation in the environment, as well as the chemical and physical conditions, render the surface of Mars completely inhospitable. This means that any farming must take place indoors, shielded from all the hostile elements. Of course, Watney must live in such shielded conditions anyway, but having to farm inside reduces his living space considerably. I look forward to seeing how the movie addresses all these concerns.
The other aspect of The Martian that intrigues me relates to its portrayal of Watney’s indomitable spirit to survive as well as his tremendous resourcefulness to overcome almost impossible obstacles. People consciously think about how to solve problems and what steps are necessary to survive. They also recognize the consequences of today’s actions and actively plan for the future. In fact, difficult obstacles make great plot lines for movies (as noted in this xkcd comic).
This self-awareness is part of what separates humanity from the animals, and it seems like The Martian places a strong emphasis on the value of human life.
Naturally, this movie will include some scientifically questionable ideas, but it will also provide a great opportunity to discuss spiritual matters. Consider taking time to see the movie and to start a conversation about the amazing capacity of Earth to support life or the evidence in the universe that humans are created in God’s image.