Popular culture has been dreaming of Mars for over a hundred years. Thomas Edison made the movie, “A Trip to Mars,” in 1910. David Bowie sang a ballad asking about “Life on Mars” in 1971. Science can take a backseat to fiction and art, but in the big budget blockbuster, “The Martian,” scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab helped Hollywood achieve a higher level of accuracy.
On this week’s TechKnow, the team examines how realistic it is to put a human on Mars in the 2030s and how much of the science in the Martian is a preview of real things to come for space travelers.
Jennifer Trosper is the Mission Manager for the Mars 2020 Rover. Working with robots on mars has been her life’s work. She is currently prepping the Mars 2020 Rover to be able collect more samples than ever before.
“We have to figure out how to make the rover faster and smarter and more operable so we can be a lot more productive on the surface to collect these samples and eventually bring them back to Earth,” said Trosper.
Jessica Chastain, one of the starts of The Martian, actually shadowed her for a day at JPL. Trosper said that Chastain watched the operation and also asked a lot of questions.
“I think a lot of times women aren’t portrayed as the leadership role especially for these technical jobs, and so when (Chastain) came in I was going into details to kind of see how much she was interested in or could take in, and she did great,” said Trosper.
TechKnow also spoke with Rob Manning, the engineering manager for the Mars Program who also advised on the film. He was the chief engineer behind the Mars Pathfinder which is a key plot element in the Martian. Manning is currently testing out new parachutes for soft landings on Mars.
According Manning, “The Martian” did an “awesome job” of trying to communicate what life would really be like on the surface of Mars. He says that the movie examined what kind of real challenges that real humans would face trying to explore the very rough and dangerous environment. Manning said “The Martian” was the “best movie ever made about what would be like to explore another planet.”
Both Manning and Trosper are excited about the next mission because they are geared to making Mars a viable and safe destination for human space exploration.
“We are developing an instrument called Moxie which is going to fly in the next mission to Mars…This is an instrument which is going to take the carbon dioxide, pull apart the carbon from the oxygen, and actually pump the oxygen into a little chamber as a demonstration to convince ourselves that we know how to create breathable oxygen on Mars,” said Manning.
Manning and Trosper are both passionate about the lessons humans can learn from Mars. Manning said that in a billion years Earth will become like Mars. He said that at one point in the future Mars might “end up being more habitable than Earth.” Both of these scientists believe a human journey to Mars will happen in their lifetime.
“I think there are lots of factors in terms of how long it takes, how does the technology progress go, how does the financial commitments go, how do the political commitments go but I think we can get there. That’s the exciting part. There’s a path that we’ll get there in a few decades and that’s exciting,” said Trosper.