Mars has held a central place in human imagination and culture for millennia. Ancients marveled at its red color and the brightness that waxed and waned in cycles over the years. Early observations through telescopes led some to speculate that the planet was covered with canals that its inhabitants used for transportation and commerce. In “The War of the Worlds”, the writer H.G. Wells posited a Martian culture that would attempt to conquer Earth. In 1938, Orson Welles panicked listeners who thought they were listening to a news broadcast rather than his radio adaptation of Wells’s novel.
The real story of humans and Mars is a little more prosaic but no less fascinating. Telescopes turned the bright red dot in the sky into a fuzzy, mottled disk that gave rise to those daydreams of canals. Just 50 years ago, the first photograph of Mars from a passing spacecraft appeared to show a hazy atmosphere. Now decades of exploration on the planet itself has shown it to be a world that once had open water, an essential ingredient for life.
The fascination hasn’t waned, even in the Internet Age. A former computer programmer named Andy Weir, who enjoyed writing for its own sake and posted fiction to his blog, started a serial about a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars. The popularity ultimately led him to turn it into a successful novel, “The Martian”, which has been made into a movie that will be released in October 2015.
“The Martian” merges the fictional and factual narratives about Mars, building upon the work NASA and others have done exploring Mars and moving it forward into the 2030s, when NASA astronauts are regularly traveling to Mars and living on the surface to explore. Although the action takes place 20 years in the future, NASA is already developing many of the technologies that appear in the film.