Peter James Collins

RAF pilot Peter J. Collins

RAF pilot Peter J. Collins

I was distressed to learn today of the passing of a legend- prolific test pilot Peter James Collins, formerly of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, died this August, 2016.

Collins lived the epitome of a fast jet pilots life- fighter pilot, flight demonstration pilot, test pilot, and contract aviation consultant.  His service record was noteworthy in in its own right.  But it was his contributions to field of test flying that made him famous in the aviation community. He continued his pursuit advancing aviation through flying and writing until his unexpected death this month.

Peter Collins joined the UK’s armed forces in 1975. While serving in the Royal Air Force, Collins was assigned to a Harrier GR.3 squadron in Germany.  The Gr.3 operated in the ground attack and reconnaissance role.  The unit’s mission was to provide responsive tactical support to NATO forces against Warsaw Pact armies.

Collins and his Harrier, early 1980s

Collins and his Harrier, early 1980s

 

During his assignment in Germany, the  military Junta in Argentina directed the Argentine armed forces to invade and hold the Falkland Islands.  Collins’ tour in Deutschland was cut short and he was given orders to report to the Royal Navy for conversion to the Sea Harrier FRS.1, in time to sail aboard the carrier HMS Illustrious to the contested South Atlantic.

He flew Sea Harriers with the decorated 809NAS (Naval Air Squadron) during the UK’s operations to reclaim and hold the Falklands following Argentina’s capitulation.

Collins returned to the RAF- now as an instructor, teaching Tactics and Weapon techniques to advanced students at the RAF Tactical Weapons Unit.  This prestigious posting lead him to another- that of a pilot for the RAF’s Red Arrows flight demonstration team.  This in turn gave him the opportunity to propel his career even further- to the world of test flying.

Collins was accepted to the Empire Test Pilot School and graduated in 1989. At RAF Boscombe Down, the UK’s primary test and evaluation flight center, he had the opportunity to participate in numerous aircraft development programs.

Peter Collins chose to leave the RAF in 1993, opting for the flexibility of a civilian flight test career. He lent his experience to several major aerospace manufacturers over the last decades of his life. Some of the aircraft he contributed to were the Fokker F70 and F100, Mirage 2000, Panavia Tornado, Dassault Rafale, Dassault Falcon jet series, Pilatus PC-12 and PC-21, Aeromacchi M346, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed-Martin F-16  He eventually rose to the position of Chief Test Pilot for Raytheon UK. With that company, he was responsible for delivery of the Sentinel R.1 and Shadow UAS projects. Both of those aircraft now fly with the Royal Air Force as part of the counter-ISIS Coalition air campaign.

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Collins in a Red Arrows Hawk trainer

 

Over the course of his life, he flew over 10,000 hours in 119 different aircraft types.  In an era of diminishing budgets and risk averse contractors, that number is noteworthy.  It wasn’t just that he flew so many, it’s significant that he test flew  so many of those designs. It is unlikely that records such as his will ever be broken or matched.

Test pilot for Dassault Aviation

Test pilot for Dassault Aviation

I never had the opportunity to meet him in person.  However, he and I did converse online about our shared interests in military aviation history, flight test, and opportunities within the industry. Mr. Collins offered advice about my career in aerospace, and answered every question I posed about his own. I took to heart his mentoring, as brief as it was. He was pragmatic in his suggestions and simultaneously encouraging.  I regret that I didn’t have the foresight to be more proactive in my correspondence.  But I am thankful for the brief chance to speak with a legend.

Clear Skies, sir.

 

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(All photos were retrieved from the public domain via Mr. Collins’ personal Twitter account)

 

 

HERA X: Looking for Public Outreach support

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In my effort to share the story of human spaceflight (Including the various federal and commercial programs as well as my own endeavors), I would like to find ways to share my upcoming participation in NASA’s HERA analog study.

If you would like to follow the details of the simulated mission, the crew and I will be posting on Twitter to this account: @HERA_Crew_X

From April 19th through May 2nd, the other crew members and I will be training on the Johnson Space Center campus in Houston, Texas.  Each of us will be assigned a role on the crew.  Two of the selected participants will train as Mission Specialists, another will play the role of Flight Engineer, and one will be responsible as Mission Commander. During training, we will learn the tasks associated with our respective roles.

I will continue to post to this blog until the start of the mission study, and follow up afterward with more after the flight profile is completed.

If you have a webpage, write a blog, host a space/science/STEM social media account (or know someone who does) and would like to know more about the HERA X mission, feel free to contact me and I will do my best to answer your questions.  I would love to share this experience with a wider audience.

caseystedman@hotmail.com

 

 

HERA Crew 10 Mission Patch

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

As with every mission that preceded it, Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission 10 will have its own unique patch.  It will be worn by the 4 crew members, adorn equipment and apparel, and one day hang alongside the previous mission’s symbols on a wall at Johnson Space Center.

The patch design reflects the various aspects of the HERA campaign. This particular missions simulation is C3M2- or, “campaign three, mission two”.  Counting the total number of HERA crews that have used the analog habitat module, ours will be number ten.  Hence the big Roman numeral “X”.  The X has another significance this particular study will take place during the 50th anniversary of Gemini 10, which also used the large Roman numeral 10 in the mission patch design.

Each of the crew members names appear, as do 4 stars representing the number of crew.  Occupying the foreground is the asteroid Geographos, an actual asteroid found near Earth, one that actually crosses our planet’s orbit, and the simulated target for this mission. (Conveniently closer than the asteroids found orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt).  Earth is to the right, eclipsed behind the asteroid representing both the origin and final destination of the spaceflight. Mars is there too- always in the background, on the horizon of all NASA’s human spaceflight projects.

Finally, you can see our spacecraft or a representation of what a craft might look like if one were to attempt a human mission to a nearby asteroid.  The design we chose to use was NASA’s “Nautilus X“, a conceptual deep-space craft for beyond Earth orbit  (BEO) exploration.  Although such a vehicle is likely decades away from actually transporting astronauts anywhere, it follows the existing engineering principles necessary for such a journey.

I’m really looking forward to wearing this patch on my uniform!

I Return to (Simulated) Space

Photo Credit: Ron Garon

Photo Credit: Ron Franco

Continuing my goals of playing a role in human spaceflight, I recently applied to and was accepted as a participant in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) campaign.

HERA is a “high-fidelity research venue for scientists to use in addressing risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight.” (according to NASA’s website.) It is a project operated by NASA’s Human Research Program, or HRP, located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Like my experience in the HI-SEAS analog (You can read my post about that HERE), I will be serving as a subject for NASA’s investigation into mitigating the risks of future space missions.  As a “stand-in” for an astronaut, I will be simulating the duties and tasks necessary to conduct a long-duration spaceflight.  Whereas in HI-SEAS the mission was one of Martian exploration, this time I will be simulating the launch and flight to a nearby asteroid.

After a several decades of learning to live and operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using the Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station, NASA is beginning to plan for deep space exploration missions again.  There are a number of mission concepts and targets proposed, with all choices eventually leading up to human landings on the planet Mars.  But before a rocket carrying astronauts can reach the red planet a number of milestones need to met.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

One of the precursor missions being developed is rendezvous and exploration of an asteroid.  Either by direct observation and sampling, or retrieval and sampling from a safer lunar orbit, it promises to be one of the most ambitious human spaceflight missions ever undertaken.  Such a mission would provide NASA an operational test of the techniques and technologies required for the much riskier Martian exploration flights, just as Gemini preceded the Apollo Lunar missions.  (For more about the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, check out NASA’s page)

The HERA study profile will be that of a human spaceflight mission from launch to recovery, featuring a rendezvous and virtual EVAs to collect samples from the target asteroid.  To do this, myself and three other crew members will train for and conduct a 30 day simulation.  This will provide the HRP researchers with an opportunity to record and evaluate our ability to complete all of the duties required of astronauts during that period.

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid Credit: NASA

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid
Credit: NASA

Similar to HI-SEAS, I will be the subject of a multitude of human factors experiments.  Participating institutions will incorporate ways to evaluate our physical and mental health, our cognitive skills, problem solving, time management, nutritional balance, and team building.  Feedback from surveys (and video cameras placed throughout the HERA hab structure) will be the primary methods of collecting the data from the crew/subjects.

The HERA project us centered around a versatile habitat module structure that has been used in several NASA programs.   Initially devised as an engineering test article, the 3 story structure was known as the “Deep Space Habitat” or DSH.  As a generic design not specific to any particular mission, it has been used as a static and mobile research platform.  In 2011, the whole unit was trucked to Arizona and assembled to take part in the Desert RATS (Desert Research and Technology Studies) analog.  Today the DSH serves as the core module of the HERA project and is located on the campus of Johnson Space Center.

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

As you can see in the diagram above, it is not a large living space. The interior is designed to reflect the cylindrical shape of space structures launched from Earth (as each component of ISS was).  It features a laboratory, storage, crew quarters, galley, and fitness equipment.  Attached to the main DSH are hygiene and airlock modules. Windows are replaced with video screens that will play vistas appropriate for each phase of the mission profile. (The depiction above doesn’t show the 2nd or 3rd stories, in what is known as the “Badger X-ploration Loft). Like a real spacecraft, there is no unnecessary space.  Astronauts are creative with small living spaces, and I suppose I will learning to cope soon too.

My return to (simulated) space is just a month away.  I will post more about my experience here, so check back for updates. During the study however, I will be not be able to access social media, so you’ll need to be patient. There will also be restrictions as to what I can share because of the nature of the study, but I will do my best to answer any questions that you have. Thank you for following along on my journey!

For more information about HERA and NASA’s other analog research projects, follow this link: http://www.nasa.gov/hrp/research/analogs/hera

 

Commercial Spaceflight Training: A New Series!

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I’d like to share with you my journey.  It’s the physical manifestation of my aspirations.  I’m going to document my progress as I complete milestones on the path of commercial spaceflight training.

(I will post my disclaimer now: I will in no way refer to myself as an astronaut, nor an astronaut candidate, nor make any assumptions or predictions concerning my competitiveness to ever be selected for a flight.)

What I will do is share my experience as I work through the various practical aspects of spaceflight training.  Each post in this series will focus on a specific skill or event required for human spaceflight.  From flight training to microgravity simulation, I will document my accomplishments and discuss how they pertain to preparing an astronaut for space.

My goal is to inform and entertain.  And maybe, if I do this well, I will be lucky enough to inspire someone too.  I will make no arguments suggesting commercial astronautics is superior or inferior to federal programs, nor extol one spacecraft manufacturer over another.  I will, however, be an advocate for the potential of commercial spaceflight.  This series will focus on the commercial space industry, not NASA. That is not to say I won’t reference NASA’s astronaut training – how could I not?  Expect though that my posts will discuss training specifically addressing commercial suborbital and orbital projects.

Please follow along and share this at your leisure.  I will post to this series on a semi-regular basis, or as often as I have the opportunity to complete another milestone.  I do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard – to keep a schedule!

Casey Stedman, Fairview Heights, Illinois – February 23rd, 2016

Top 10 Space Events to look forward to in 2016

 

The new year, like the last, has the potential to be an amazing one for space exploration and space technology development.  2015 saw tremendous strides, as well as setbacks.  2016 is poised for similar successes, should the various entities plans go unhampered.

Already, some important developments have been made that impact the future of spaceflight.  NASA selected contractors for the second round of Commercial Re-Supply (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) on January 14th.  With contracts to support flight operations aboard the orbital space platform until 2024, SpaceX,  Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems have been selected to demonstrate the ability to resupply ISS using commercially developed space vehicles. (Click here for more)

On a negative note, the development of the pending Mars science mission InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) has been delayed indefinitely following discovery of issues to the primary instrument.  InSight was originally to be launched in March of 2016, and then postponed until 2018, doubt have been expressed that that spacecraft may not be ready before that launch window either. (For more information, go to the JPL mission site here)

My top ten list that follows is only a sample of the various events and possibilities that may happen in 2016.  I won’t be including annual events such as conferences or awards, nor will I speculate on the unveiling of designs that companies have not yet scheduled.  I chose not to include astronomical events as the lists for those are widely available and for any matter are natural events, un-impacted by human actions.

But I preface this again- this is *MY* Top ten list.  These are the events that excite me the most, not necessarily what everyone is interested in. But feel free to discuss!

10.  SpaceShipTwo Redux (Virgin Galactic)

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Undeterred venture spaceflight company Virgin Galactic will receive the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle from partner manufacturing firm The Spaceship Company, on or about February 19th.  The new craft incorporates the changes recommended by the NTSB findings following the October 31st 2014 accident of the first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. Professor Stephen Hawking, famed author and physicist, will be present for the unveiling and has been asked to confer a name upon the finished aerospace craft.

9.  Juno space probe reaches Jupiter  (NASA/JPL/SwRI)

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Launched August 5th, 2011, Juno is planned to reach Jovian polar orbit July 5th. The spacecraft is has been designed and configured with a sensor suite to investigate the chemical composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, structure of the planet’s magnetic field, gravitational variations, and polar phenomena. This will be the first spacecraft specifically designed to investigate Jupiter since the Galileo probe entered the Jovian atmosphere at the completion of  it’s mission in 1995.

8.  The Nexo Launch (Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Copyright Copenhagen Suborbitals

Copyright Copenhagen Suborbitals

Crowd-funded start-up Copenhagen Suborbitals has made steady progress since the company was started in 2008.  The Nexo rocket was scheduled for initial flight tests in 2015, but tests of  the motor forced the CS team to delay a launch attempt. Nexo stands 5.6 meters high and will be the first liquid-fueled design the company has produced.  It an incremental phase of the company’s plans to launch a human occupant on a suborbital trajectory. (The program website is here)

7.  EXO Mars Part 1 (ESA/Roscosmos)

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Exo Mars is a joint scientific mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia, represented by the state-controlled Roscosmos space agency. Designed to investigate potential signs of life, the mission will consist of multiple spacecraft working in concert.  The first element to launch will be the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) which will carry an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) called ‘Schiaparelli’.  The TGO is scheduled to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on March 14th.

6.  Stratolaunch Unveiling (Vulcan Aerospace)

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This may be a stretch- there is not much to indicate, as the company has proposed, that a test flight of the massive “Roc” carrier aircraft will fly in 2016.  However, with vehicle construction underway in Mojave, California, we may see the craft unveiled later this year.  Not unlike the WhiteKnight series carrier aircraft flown by Virgin Galactic, the Stratolaunch airplane is planned to air-launch payloads of the mass similar to traditional rockets.  It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.

5. Tiangong-2 (Peoples Republic of China)

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The slow but steady progress of the Chinese space program is a little understood and controversial topic. China is poised to launch the second space laboratory sometime this year, according to announcements made by Beijing.  The first Tiangong was launched in 2011, and served as a demonstration of the technologies necessary to maintain a multi-module station not unlike the Soviet Salyut stations. Tiangong-2 will likely be capable of receiving automated cargo resupply craft that are currently being developed. The Chinese program is methodical, and continues to succeed in every endeavor they attempt. If slowly.

4. OSIRIS-REx joins the space probe fleet (NASA/UALPL)

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The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer mission is set launch in September 2016.  It’s not so much the launch date that is interesting, but the return date (!) OSIRIS-REx is to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2019, and return a sample to earth in 2023.  This isn’t the first spacecraft to rendezvous with an asteroid, nor is it the first to attempt the goal of returning a sample from one. This mission has the advantage of incorporating the lessons learned from the ESA and JAXA asteroid study spacecraft that came before it.   It could serve as a precursor to a future mission using similar architecture to collect and return samples from the moons of Mars.

3.  Falcon Heavy (SpaceX)

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Although there are commercial spaceflight companies that I follow more closely than SpaceX, the presence of another American Heavy Launch Vehicle (HLV) has the potential to significantly drive down the costs of “pound to orbit” prices.  Presently, entities looking to launch massive payloads are limited to government subsidized launch services. A commercial contender to the market could change the accessibility to space by driving down costs. SpaceX has announced that they intend to conduct a test launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this spring.

2.  BEAM installation (Bigelow Aerospace)

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Although this particular event has the least immediate impact on space technology or exploration progress, I’m extremely interested in it as it represents a potential for great things to come.  Bigelow Aerospace is to launch a technology demonstrator known as BEAM to ISS this March. BEAM stands for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module- it’s a cylindrical workspace constructed of flexible material that inflates into shape under positive pressure.  Bigelow has tested similar structures on uninhabited, scale mock-ups of expandable space habitats in orbit.  This will be the first test in cooperation with NASA.  (BEAM site link)

1.  XCOR Lynx flight tests (XCOR Aerospace)

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Of all the possible events that may yet still take place in 2016, the flight test of XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Mark I is the one I’m looking forward to the most.  XCOR is constructing the prototype of their internally designed suborbital spacecraft and has announced their intent to test fly it sometime this year. The date has not been firmly established, and has been pushed “to the right” as development  progressed slower than expected.  Pending the success of the test program, the company hopes to build an operational variant of the craft (mark II) and begin commercial flights carrying space tourists and scientific research payloads in the near future.

 

NASA Astronaut Application: Goals, Expectations, and Reality

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This last Monday, December 14th 2015, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, began accepting applications for the Astronaut Corps. The link can be found HERE

Unlike the period in which NASA operated the space shuttle and the U.S. government regularly recruited new astronauts, the post shuttle period has seen a diminished requirement for new applicants and flyable candidates.  The most recent opportunity to apply to be an astronaut was announced in 2011, and in 2013, just 8 individuals were chosen from a pool of 6,372 applicants.

My interest in spaceflight began early- But I I’m not going to rehash a story so many others have stated before. Instead, I will say that I had many other interests too, some of which were more achievable in the near-term, which ultimately became the path I followed.

It is interesting to have become involved enough in space community to know more than a few highly competitive individuals who will be submitting application to NASA this round. One those who applied in 2011 and made it to the interview portion of the process was Brian Shiro, a geophysicist working for NOAA. (read his blog here) He has written several posts documenting his experience, as well as recent article in Forbes about the recent call for applications.

In his article, Shiro states a list of observations about he NASA astronaut selection process. Number two on the list is “set realistic expectations”.  We all have a plan for ourselves, a series of accomplishments we hope to achieve in our lifetimes. We set these expectations – and if we’re focused enough, we can achieve them.  I’ve always held myself to a high standard, competitively focused and dedicated to my goals. But along the way, life happens, and managing my expectations has been an often bitter aftertaste to the reality of events.

Unfortunately, I made a choice in my past to expedite my undergraduate education and received my BA before heading to flight school with the Air Force. That degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, provided me with a background in cartography, culture, and geopolitical affairs that has aided me every day as an officer in the Armed Forces.  I made a decision then to ensure I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to fly as a military aviator. Unfortunately, the degree I earned is not one sought by NASA for applicants to the Astronaut Corps.

While I’m disappointed, I understand the limitations indicated in the application. I do wish there was a recourse- some allowance for comparable experience or skillset. But that is not the case.

Rather than see this as the end of a dream, I choose to see this as the affirming of my belief in the emerging commercial spaceflight opportunities.

For anyone who knows me well or follows this blog, you know that not only am I an advocate for the commercial spaceflight industry, but that I have been working diligently to prepare myself to work in that sector.  From my graduate studies to my flying experience and more recently practical training courses, I am attempting to build a foundation of applicable achievements that can be utilized in commercial spaceflight.

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While it is true that any market for commercial astronauts is still in the future, and that any such men and women won’t be part of NASA’s missions to Mars, the cornerstone of that industry is being made possible today.  From CubeSats to commercial space stations, new space enterprises other than those operated by federal institutions are being launched all the time.  NASA may soon become just one of many pathways to becoming an astronaut.

That is not to say the commercial path will be easier- the existing commercial spaceflight companies have had their pick of former NASA astronauts who’ve left the agency in recent years, following the retirement of the space shuttle. These men and women will set a high standard for the potential applicants that follow.  NASA’s astronaut corps is still a rather small collection of individuals, however, and it can’t sustain an emerging industry alone. Even pessimistic assumptions imply that these new space companies will need to employ more commercial payload specialists and pilots than are currently working for America’s space agency.

Despite the limitations of my education to date, I’ve sought opportunities to demonstrate my talents to commercial spaceflight industry wherever I can.  From analog simulations to training as a candidate for suborbital payload operation, I look for ways to add new skills and increase my knowledge in the subjects sought by NASA for the astronaut corps. I read informative books and papers on a wide spectrum of subjects related to aerospace and astronautics. When my schedule allows, I attend conferences and summits in order to meet with and network professionals in the industry. And I write about my experiences in order to help others learn about these opportunities as well.  Every decision I make is one to better myself, and better my chance at being selected to take part in future spaceflight projects.

I won’t be submitting an application to be astronaut with NASA this round. Maybe sometime in the future, my accumulated education and experience will meet the requirements laid out by the space agency. For now, I will continue to improve myself and work toward helping to a build a future where there is more than one pathway to the stars.

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015

 

Film Review: The Martian

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Every now and then space geeks are treated to a great, scientifically feasible science-fiction film.  I am happy to report that The Martian, a film adaption of the novel by the same title, is one of those films.

For those of you who haven’t read the book by author Andy Weir, go do so. In fact, you should go do that now so you can watch the film when it’s available in theaters. Really, go do it.

The Martian is a simple premise: Sometime in the near future, on the third human exploration mission to the planet Mars, a martian dust storm forces the crew to evacuate and abort the mission. Launching from the surface of the storm battered planet, they escape, leaving behind one of the crew whom they believe is killed in the attempt to reach the spacecraft.  Except he doesn’t die.

Instead, fictional astronaut and reluctant protagonist of the drama Mark Watney (played by deftly by Matt Damon) is marooned alone, very much alive, on the surface of Mars.  Faced with incomparable desolation and a meager collection of leftover equipment, Watney is forced to adapt in order to survive before a rescue mission can be launched years later.

Much of the angst fans of the book will center on the next 2 hours of the film: does it portray the science (and engineering) correctly?  Of course the answer is yes AND no. For obvious reasons, there are simply some aspects of interplanetary life that just cannot be replicated on Earth. (Or effectively in CGI, for that matter.) For example Mars has only 38 % percent of the gravity found on Earth.  The film does it’s best to diminish the impediment of Earth’s 1G, but there is just so much that can be done here on our orbital rock. Wisely, director Ridley Scott didn’t attempt to force unnecessary and poorly simulated Martian gravity into the film.

Our astronaut hero is left on Mars with but a few months ration remaining in the habitat module he makes home.  Ingeniously, he endeavors to grow potatoes from some of the few remaining examples cached in the crew’s stores. Now, when he pours raw martian regolith (as non-organic soil on extraterrestrial planets is called), I cringed.  The actual surface of Mars, besides being rich in oxidized elements, has been found to contain perchlorates– an ammonium-based substance toxic to most lifeforms, including humans. Astronauts living on Mars would be constantly working to mitigate the exposure to these chemicals. Disregarding this, the premise of growing crops to supplement future Martian explorer’s diets is a well established concept. Even today, research into growing foodstuffs on Mars is a full-time occupation for some scientists.

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I want to point out I’m not a scientist- I cannot vouch for the veracity of every aspect of the film’s scientific accuracy. (Although I have taken part in a long-duration Mars Mission Simulation)  There are some elements in the film which will likely leave some more literal viewers aghast.  I’m not one of those viewers- I can enjoy the film for it’s entertainment value alone.  Instead, space geeks should rejoice that this story remains true to the novel in almost every respect.

Space enthusiasts and aficionados will be excited to see the array of space exploration technology seen in the film. Habitat module? Remarkably similar to proposed NASA configurations. Mars rover? Again- nearly straight from the pages of industry’s designs. Even the spacesuit- which is considerably more form-fitting than contemporary EVA suits being tested BY NASA- has a basis in reality. (The Dava Newman bio-suit) Even as I typed this review, NASA unveiled a design concept for a Mars Ascent Vehicle, or “MAV”, just tlike the one that plays a key role in the plot of The Martian.

It can be said the real star of this film is Mars itself. There have been many depictions of the red planet in movies, some more accurate than others, and some downright laughable.  Perhaps because the surface of Mars is slowly becoming a part of the collective consciousness through the images returned from the rovers now exploring its geology, it takes more than just a red filter and matte frames of Monument Valley to adequately portray the planet in a movie.  The Martian doesn’t falter in this element. Wide alluvial plains, windswept hills, dust devils- even the incomparable Tharsis volcanoes make an appearance in the film.  (Some of the topography brought back memories of flying over the Sahara in Southern Algeria from my time in the service)

Perhaps the major sticking point in the science shown in the movie is very dust storm that strands poor Watney in the first minutes of the motion picture.  Mars does endure massive dust storms that envelope entire hemispheres for months at a time- but with the average density of the atmosphere being close to just 1% of that found on Earth, the devastating chaos featured in The Martian is an exaggeration of tremendous magnitudes. There is an enlightening article featured at Space.com by Elizabeth Howell that investigates this issue in detail- ‘The Martian’ Dust Storm Would Actually Be a Breeze. To read what NASA has to say about the dangers of Martian dust storms, click HERE.

The film is also limited in another dimension that just cannot be experienced in the same fashion as the novel: time.  The tedious efforts to farm, construct makeshift repairs, and simply wait was an aspect of the book that had a discernible impact in literary form. But constrained by the period in which a feature film can run, Watney’s sentence on Mars seems much too quick. The sequence depicting his cross-country road trip to seek out the defunct Pathfinder lander is an example. However, one manner in which the film succeeds in this conundrum is the visual degradation Watney experiences over the course of the story.  When we first see Damon on screen, he is a muscled movie star. By the time his character is preparing for his desperate rescue, he appears, gaunt, malnourished, and broken.  That gradual slide toward doom plays well in the film.

Besides our abandoned hero, The Martian also features a diverse cast of supporting characters that add to the whole of the odyssey.  This is a place where the film succeeds- adding a textured backdrop to Watney’s arc.  Taking place mostly at either the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, these sequences of the film at first seem jarring- almost TOO much contrast from the panorama of Martian topography. But as the audience comes to know the characters, they become more and more essential to the overall story.

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The crew of the Ares spacecraft is led by Commander Lewis, played by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Her crew is made up of Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan),  and Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie, who seems a ringer for real-life astronaut Luca Parmitano).  In many ways, the Ares crew has even fewer resources available to them to effect Watney’s rescue than he does himself. With just a docking hatch, a spacesuit, and some orbital velocity, they ensure the story happens. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen more character development of the crew- but the film reflects the book in this regard neatly.  But for what the Ares sequences lack in-depth, they make up for in grandeur on the screen. (The interior of the spacecraft seems almost laboratory-clean, at least in comparison to photographs of the interior of the International Space Station)

More impact comes through in the scenes taking place on Earth.  The audience is treated to the politics of mission management at JSC as well as the technical trouble-shooting of the engineers at JPL.  It is through the actions of the mission directors and staff that we see how the world reacts to the discovery that astronaut Watney is alive, and the frustration of being unable to devise a way to reach him as quickly as necessary.

A very serious Jeff Daniels plays “the director of NASA” (the actual title is “Administrator“), shown mostly presenting press conferences and sparring over rescue plans with flight directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  Circling around them is an array of supporting characters whose roles are to enable the solution that help to rescue Watney.  I was pleasantly surprised how well the scenes featuring the Chinese space agency fit into the overall film, considering it essentially introduces a whole new plot arc two-thirds of the way into the story.

It has been pointed out that the scenes depicting events at the Mission Control Center (MCC) and other building at JSC were NOT actually filmed there- no government facilities look that nice!  One can only assume that in future depicted in the film, NASA was appropriated a great deal more funding than it receives currently!

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The Ares’ return to Martian orbit and the “convertible rocket” rescue sequence is simply incredible on a massive movie screen.  The dance of centripetal motion as the ad-hoc rendezvous unfolds is better seen than read- an advantage the movie has over the novel. Desperate Extra-Vehicular Excursions (EVAs) are a staple of contemporary science fiction films, but few have so earnestly walked through the physics necessary like The Martian does.

Perhaps because it contrasts so much with recent space-themed dramas Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian stands apart by retaining a levity between the characters and the story that never allows the audience to feel despair.  Even at its darkest moments, the movie never twists the knife even when it could- (The scene where a catastrophic decompression of Watney’s habitat module comes to mind).  A well executed incorporation of Commander Lewis’ disco music collection plays throughout the movie, conveying in some regards the humanity that might otherwise have been lost by succumbing to an overwrought orchestral score.

There is an important addition the movie that wasn’t in Weir’s novel.  The film’s coda sequence is perhaps one of the more touching portions of the whole story, and a welcome extra.  In talking to others who’ve read the book, many are struck by the abrupt ending.  The director wisely included one more chapter to Watney’s journey for this interpretation of the story. Purists may find fault in this, but I really do think it adds to this interpretation of Weir’s novel.  I won’t spoil it here, however.  You just need to stay in your seat a few moments longer when the credits begin to play.

So, is the film any good? My answer is YES. I’ll even say it’s worth the $12 to see it in 3D or on an IMAX screen, if you have the chance.  It’s not every day we are treated to a quality science fiction film with some real science in it. Treat yourself this week and go see The Martian.

By the way, I hope you enjoy disco music…