In the late 1980s, I regularly watched a TV program that appealed to technically-oriented viewers. The hour-long program featured a character known only by his family name, MacGyver. Although the MacGyver TV program was an American production, many of the episodes were filmed in and around Vancouver.

MacGyver was not your typical agent. He never carried a gun and rarely resorted to violence. He solely used his ingenuity and technical skills (and his Swiss Army knife) to get out of life-and-death situations. This aspect of his personal character appealed to me as an engineer. MacGyver also exhibited determination and equanimity (coolness under pressure). Those character traits appealed to me as a newbie astronaut.

The Martian Book and Blu-Ray covers
The Martian – a great book and movie.
Above: ©2014 Crown Publishing Group; Right TM and ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Last year I read the novel The Martian. If author Andrew Weir had ever considered an alternate title for his book, MacGyver on Mars would’ve been appropriate. The main character in the story is astronaut Mark Watney, who is presumed dead by his crewmates following an accident and is unintentionally stranded on the red planet. Once he realizes his predicament, Watney begins to use his MacGyver-like skills to survive and return home to Earth. He courageously and humorously states, “In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option, I'm gonna have to science the [heck] out of this.” The start of a great story!

I also saw the associated movie (twice, in fact … in 3-D) directed by Ridley Scott. It was superb. Matt Damon plays the role of Mark Watney. Matt superbly depicts the astronaut’s resourcefulness and encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences as he solves a series of complex problems in order to survive on the planet until a rescue mission can be launched.

I am sometimes annoyed by my techie friends who go out of their way to find fault with the technical aspects of movies. I am the opposite - I look for the accuracies. There are plenty of things that are technically right with The Martian. Andrew Weir and Ridley Scott have built their story/screenplay around exploration technologies already being developed by NASA and other space agencies. They obviously consulted extensively to incorporate the latest thinking about the first human missions to Mars. For instance, the things that The Martian got right include:

  • the habitation module
  • the oxygen generation system
  • the extravehicular activity suit
  • the water recovery system
  • the Mars rover
  • ion propulsion engines
  • solar array power systems
  • radioisotope thermoelectric generators

I was particularly pleased to see Watney turn the hab module into a greenhouse and grow a crop of potatoes. This is a capability that my friend Dr. Mike Dixon of the University of Guelph insists will be essential for actual missions to Mars. Mike, an environmental biologist, states "For humans to survive on Mars, they will need a continuous source of food. They will need to grow crops.” We can’t build a spaceship large enough to bring along a mission’s worth of processed food for all of the crew. And the great distance to Mars means that we will not be able to continuously resupply the astronauts with food from Earth.

After he has successfully grown his first crop of potatoes, Mark Watney exclaims, “I don't want to come off as arrogant here, but I'm the greatest botanist on this planet.” This was an amusing statement since at that moment in the movie, Mark was the only person on Mars!

The management of food crops is so critical to space exploration that Mike Dixon believes that the Mars crew should include a horticulturalist just like the character Mark Watney. I smile to think that if Mike had been born 50 years later, he could’ve been that crew member on a future Mars mission. He even has Mark Watney’s quirky sense of humour!

Canada is a leader in biological life support. Mike Dixon and his University of Guelph research team investigate the contributions of plants not only as food sources but also as advanced life support systems. Plants can provide oxygen to the habitat atmosphere, remove carbon dioxide and pollutants, and treat waste water.

Dr. Mike Dixon, Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at the University of Guelph.
University of Guelph.

Lettuce is currently being grown aboard the International Space Station as a research investigation. The crops for Mars will likely be high-value foods like cherry tomatoes and strawberries in order to meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts. While there is still much research to be done, Mike and his team are advancing the contributions that plants will make to space exploration life support and food requirements.

These future Mars astronauts are actually alive today and many are already learning the fundamentals of space horticulture through the Tomatosphere™ project ( Tomatosphere™ is a Canadian project that promotes science learning at the grade school level. It connects students’ fascination with space travel and the role that green plants must someday play in the life support and food systems of space habitats. I like to think that Tomatosphere™ may be the educational spark that motivates one of them to reach for the stars.

The movie The Martian gives us a wonderful foretaste of the human exploration missions to Mars. While many of the required technologies to support these missions are already under development, several are not. In addition to biological life support systems, we do not yet have a transit vehicle (depicted in the movie as the Hermes spacecraft) nor a Mars lander and ascent vehicle (depicted as the MAV vehicle).

I give The Martian a thumbs-up and wish Ridley Scott and Matt Damon the best of luck at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. The box office success of The Martian demonstrates that the movie-going public is willing to accept some math and science content (in addition to great drama, of course) in today’s novels and movies. Let’s see more of these kinds of movies. They are great promos for STEM education and careers.

The Martian Book and Blu-Ray covers
Matt Damon – he’s got my vote for an Academy Award.
(Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox) - TM and ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

You can learn more about Robert Thirsk and his work as a Canadian Space Agency astronaut in his career profile.


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