Postscript to “NASA, China, and The Martian”

So I researched, wrote, pruned, revised, and went through that process again, finally clicking “publish.”  “Yay! my third post on this site is up,” I told my computer, then I bounded downstairs for a late lunch.

It’s hard for me to let something go that I’ve worked on (and off) over several days. After lunch I decided to see what other people on WordPress had recently written about The Martian. Bingo! I immediately found Stephanie Platter’s succinct, well-illustrated review. She recommended Mika McKennon’s highly informative post, “Science of The Martian: the Good, the Bad, and the Fascinating,” which I now recommend to you – but perhaps only if you’ve already scene the film (**spoiler alert**).

As I was reading McKennon’s piece (loved the images), I had one of those why-didn’t-I-see-that-before moments. Would that have changed anything in my previous post? Probably not, since NASA-China space relations (rather, lack of) isn’t of concern in her post. But, like Platter, she recommended a site that I really like and also recommend to you, NASA’s “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian,’” which includes super-cool sliding images that show how each of four technologies were portrayed in the film and how NASA does or visualizes something similar.


3-D View of Mars NASA on the Commons
3-D View of Mars                                                                                      NASA on the Commons

NASA, China, and The Martian

20th Century Fox poster
20th Century Fox poster

Retired astronaut Clayton C. Anderson clearly enjoyed Ridley Scott’s The Martian (as well as Andy Weir’s book on which it’s based). He favorably nods to the usual things found in film reviews, like acting and cinematography. But for him “the highlight was the film’s refreshing and inspiring depiction of NASA, ” in particular “the collaborative efforts of all the teams,” the kind of teamwork he experienced during his 30 years with the space program.

Although it’s been over a week since I saw The Martian, I keep thinking about it. I loved this real-science sci-fi film. Part of my admiration is similar to Anderson’s – the depiction of NASA employees. You see, I’m tangentially connected to the space program through my stepfather, a retired “rocket scientist,” as he likes to say, whose long aerospace career spanned from working on the Air Force’s Titan IIIC rocket booster to NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

The scenes that thrilled me the most were those involving the China National Space Agency (CNSA), as well as the montage showing excited masses of Chinese and Americans simultaneously watching  the giant screen, live-streamed conclusion to the joint NASA-CNSA rescue mission. Like Anderson, “I reveled in the scenes of international cooperation…. A science fiction survival and rescue story in which one the US’s current adversaries plays a key role in the mission’s success? What a tantalizing and hopeful vision for the future!”

One of the film's locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case - CC BY-SA license - link here
One of the film’s locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case – CC BY-SA license – link here

The Martian is indeed an optimistic film. While its conclusion is predictable – yes, NASA will rescue the title character, stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – the plot flows, punctuated with satisfying  moments of high intensity. And it has an abundance of heroes, from large figures like Watney and Mars spacecraft Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to smaller ones like Mindy Parks (Mackenzie Davis), a young  engineer who spots tell-tell changes in photos of Mars, and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a young nerdy astrodynamicist who devises a risky plan for quickly sending help to Watney.

The surprising hero is the CNSA. Without China’s help, which involves sacrificing part of its own space plans, NASA could not have succeeded in rescuing a living Watney. The science in the film is, for the most part, plausible (e.g., see Inside Science), but the political situation surrounding the decision to accept China as a rescue-mission partner is not – at least not for now. Like Anderson, however, I hope that long before the 2030s,when The Martian takes place, such a collaboration is possible.  

Mars' "Juventae Chasma (11337951926)" by European Space Agency - Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, Juventae Chasma (11337951926)” by European Space Agency – Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

The current snag is an item in the 2011 NASA  Appropriations Bill, which remains in effect: NASA and the Office of Science and Technology shall not “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” ( Fortunately, the ban does not apply to the State Department, which reported that the US and China held their first Civil Space Dialogue in Beijing on 28 September and that another meeting will be held in Washington, DC, in 2016 (for a thoughtful discussion on this meeting and related issues, see China-US Focus).

The Civil Space Dialogue is one of several recent indications that the door may soon widen for US-China space cooperation. A strong indication is summarized in this 12 October Reuters’ headline: “NASA chief says ban on Chinese partnerships is temporary.” It’s a practical matter, NASA chief Charles Bolden argues: If we don’t cooperate with China, which has launched people into orbit and is developing its own space station, “we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody … who has any hope of a human spaceflight program … will go to whoever will fly their people.”

Mars, "Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)" by European Space Agency - Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, “Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)” by European Space Agency. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

For its part, China stands “ready to work together with people from all over the world,” according to Zhou Lini, a Chinese presenter at this past September’s International Astronautical Congress (Spacenews). China, in fact, has signed initial agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos for cooperative use of its Tiangong Space Station, scheduled for launch around 2020 ( 10/14/15). Note that the ESA and Roscosmos (along with the Japanese and Canadian space agencies) are NASA partners on the International Space Station (ISS).

Also China recently signed an agreement with a commercial Houston-based company to send a DNA experiment to the ISS, which will become the first instance of the ISS hosting a Chinese payload. As Joan Johnson-Freese points out, the legislative ban against any kind of NASA-China collaboration (supposedly a ban to prompt China to change its policies on human rights and the like) “hasn’t worked and in some cases has been overtly counterproductive to U.S. interests,” especially “[g]iven that the rest of the world is working with China in space.” She hopes this experiment will be a “positive step forward” toward a better relationship with China and for our own diplomatic and scientific goals ( 8/21/15). So do I.

At the end of The Martian we’re shown American astronaut Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) launching into space beside a Chinese astronaut, presumably on a joint US-China mission. Delightful! Hopeful.

Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source
Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source

Note: I highly recommend reading Eric Betz’s “Behind the Science of The Martian”  in Astronomy online. The article focuses on some of the science that went into the making the film – and includes great images too.

UFO Artist Ionel Talpazan & Spiritual Technology

It’s almost as if it happened last week – that’s how vivid the memory is. I was seven or eight and wanted to be an astronomer. One night shortly after my grandfather died, I went outside alone to look at the stars. Back then the stars over rural Florida were grand to behold, especially on a crisp, fall, moonless night.

It happened on such a night. I noticed a star overhead getting brighter and bigger and closer. I grew frightened and ran back inside. I listened by the screen door. Then, nothing, not even a bang. I don’t think it was a UFO, never did, not even at the time – probably a meteor. In any case, the memory remains distinct and somehow glorious.alien on trike1.1

UFO artist Ionel Talpazan (1955-2015) had a similar experience as a child – but with a significant difference. Rather than a fiery ball of light, he saw “a ‘blue energy’ radiating from a mysterious source.” This sighting “became the source of his art,” William Grimes says in his New York Times article celebrating Talpazan’s life and work (several examples of his paintings are included). For another thing, he went outside not to grieve alone but to escape a beating.

Talpazan grew up in a Romanian commune and escaped Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutally repressive regime by swimming across the Danube in 1987. He was granted political asylum in the United States and spent the rest of his life living in New York City, first on the streets then moving to an apartment in Harlem.

In The Telegraph obituary I learned that Talpazan began drawing UFO images four years after his encounter and over time amassed more than 1000 artworks. The Telegraph obituary adds several interesting details not mentioned in Grimes’ piece, and both tell you more about his works and how he came to be recognized by the art world.alien stickman1.2

Contrary to what my whimsical photos suggest, Talpazan was more interested in extraterrestrial technology and space travel than in extraterrestrial beings, especially in how “flying saucers” could “bring about a better world by introducing a benevolent technology” (folklorist Daniel Wozcik, quoted by Grimes). 

In fact, Talpazan once told the journal Western Folklore that his art “shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy … Something superior in intelligence and technology. So, in [a] relative way, this is like the God. It is perfect” (quoted by Grimes).

The notion of a “spiritual technology” is what really grabbed my attention. Do we currently have any technology that we might describe as “spiritual,” something that is remotely “like the God” here on earth?

The computer comes to mind with its amazing capability to crunch numbers, find information, render 3-D virtual worlds, and so much more. (Oddly, Talpazan was a low-tech guy who didn’t own a computer, not even a telephone.)  For me, however, the technologies of aviation and recorded music have produced more transcendent moments than any other technologies in my experience. What about for you?


Note on photos:

Young Alien Showing Off on a Trike: the alien is a key chain ornament, and the trike is part of a Christmas ornament. Alien Stickman: something I found on the golf course. The black background in both is my Razer laptop box.


Update to previous post on Steve Jobs: Here’s the recent NPR review of Danny Boyle’s just-released movie Steve Jobs. I haven’t seen it yet but found it interesting that the movie stops chronicling Jobs’ life before he oversees the creation of the iPod. I agree  with the reviewer that a sequel must be planned because the movie ends about halfway through Walter Isaacson’s biography, on which Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is based.

Steve Jobs and the Passion for Simplicity

I’m not  a geek, exactly, but  I do have a keen interest in digital technology, especially  its impact on our attitudes and activities. An iphone is the only Apple product I own; my desktop is a PC, my laptop is a Razer, and my tablet is a Kindle Fire. I spread the wealth, so to speak.

Even so, my admiration for Apple products has recently grown. It began shortly after reading Laura Sydell’s article, “New Film Asks: Were Steve Jobs’ Flaws Uploaded To His Machines?” (NPR).* Her article led me to Walter Isaacson’s very fine, authorized biography, Steve Jobs (2011), which I’m about halfway through.  


Isaacson takes a no-holds-barred approach to chronicling Jobs’ life. In fact, as the book’s publisher explains, not only did Jobs cooperate with the author, “he asked for no control over what was written. He put nothing off-limits.”  Although the book clearly reveals his character flaws and professional missteps, Jobs’ brilliance as a designer and showman – and his enormous influence on how we think about and interact with digital technology (including film animation: think Pixar) – shines through.

Jobs’ design philosophy – Simplicity – is what intrigues me the most. His chief designer, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, shared Jobs’ belief that “less is better” and told Isaacson, “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.” Isaacson adds, “Design was not just about what a product looked like on the surface. It had to reflect the product’s essence” (342).


What is meant by “the product’s essence” isn’t explicitly discussed, but clues are here and there. For one thing, Jobs kept his focus on the consumer’s experience rather than the company’s bottomline, especially on the ease of use. A related clue is the “i” in front of Apple products; it originally referred to “integrating” devices with the “Internet,” then expanded to include “individuality” and “innovation,” signifying that Apple products are both personal and revolutionary (see Wikipedia iMac history).

The biggest clue as to Apple’s essence, at least so far in my reading, comes in Isaacson’s chapter on the development of the iPod. He says that “the iPod became the essence of everything Apple was destined to be: poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology, design that’s bold and simple. It had the ease of use that came from being an integrated end-to-end system, from computer to FireWire to device to software to content management” (393). So we could add “intersection,” “interaction,” and even “interdisciplinary” to the previous iList of meanings.


Jobs’ ease-of-use approach extended to the creation of the Apple stores. For example, Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO, told Isaacson, “If you look at the stores and the products, you will see Steve’s obsession with beauty as simplicity…which goes all the way to the checkout process in the stores…. It means the absolute minimum number of steps. Steve gave us the exact, explicit recipe for how he wanted the checkout to work” (372).

In other words, Jobs respected people’s time. While developing the first Macintosh, for instance, he demanded a faster boot up. Before the engineer could explain why it wasn’t faster, “Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to…the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year” (123). Soon the boot up was 28 seconds faster.

Aesthetics and craftsmanship were every bit as important as efficiency to Jobs. Take product packaging. He and Jony Ive spent lots of time on package design. Ive explained why: “You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” Isaacson agrees: “Apple customers know the feeling of opening up a well-crafted box and finding the product nestled in an inviting fashion” (347). The sheer elegance and sturdiness of the small white iPhone boxes may be why I saved mine.  

iphone boxCompressed

Jobs’ passion, Isaacson says, was “for making a great product, not just a profitable one.” Andy Hertzfeld, an engineer on the original Mac team, told Isaacson, “Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged our design team to think of ourselves that way too…. The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money. It was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater” (123).

Jobs once told Isaacson that “as a kid” he “read something that one of his heroes, Edwin Land Polaroid, said about the importance of people who stand at the intersection of humanities and science, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do” (Introduction). Clearly he succeeded: devices that combine engineering with poetry, packaging with theater, aesthetics with efficiency, elegance with craft, and passion with simplicity.

Got to admire it!



*Sydell’s article is about Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (trailer), released in September 2015. Danny Boyle’s movie Steve Jobs (trailer) will be released very soon; the screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin and based on Walter Isaacson’s biography.

*Photos: The book-cover image is the same one that came with my Kindle edition. I took the other photos with my iPhone: iPhone earbuds, paperweight, and iPhone box.