Here's why I left 'The Martian' with a terrible sinking feeling

I really loved “The Martian,” a survivalist thriller about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. I loved it so much that I called it the best space sci-fi movie of my time.

But that warm, satisfied feeling disappeared the second the credits started to roll.

It’s easy to see why the film adaptation has gotten so much praise and adoration from the science and space community. My own glowing review largely stemmed from the story’s attention to scientific detail and realism, which is often missing from science fiction films. All the NASA technology you read about in the book or see in the film adaptation is based on existing or future prototypes of real thing.

Best of all, “The Martian” portrays what a real mission to Mars might look like. But by the end of the movie a horrible, sinking feeling replaced my enthusiasm: I remembered NASA only has a skeleton of a real Mars program in place and practically no funding to make it a reality.

It may not seem that way. NASA aggressively reminds us that it’s going to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. And of course it’s hooking into all the hype around “The Martian” to get people excited about Mars. Case in point:

And of course there’s the coincidental timing of NASA’s “big announcement” this week that water flows on Mars:

NASA has already made it clear that the timing of the Mars discovery and release of “The Martian” was not orchestrated, but the space agency’s public relations team would be crazy not to take advantage of the coincidence.

While there’s certainly a lot of hype around NASA’s Mars program, the organisation really is working toward getting us there. The trouble is there’s too much standing in the way that NASA has no control over.

One of the biggest problems is NASA’s pathetic budget. The space agency had a budget nearly five times greater than it is today during the Apollo program and has faced cut after cut ever since. Today around $US300 million of NASA’s total $US18 billion budget is allocated toward Mars exploration program — but only for scientific research by robots.

NASA is building a giant rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) to send heavy equipment, people, and supplies into space, but that program is likely to go over budget. Even when finished, SLS will need a big upgrade before it’s powerful enough to send any spacecraft to Mars.

There’s also the Orion space capsule, which is designed to eventually ferry astronauts to Mars. Right now, however, the model is only capable of comfortably seating a six-person crew for a few weeks. It will take up to eight months to reach Mars, so Orion will need a deep-space add-on before it’s ready for a real Mars mission.

NASA also hasn’t worked out how to safely land Orion there. Mars has an almost non-existent atmosphere, which makes slowing down and gently landing complicated.

All of those hardware upgrades and research are going to cost money. A lot of money. A deadline of the 2030s seems a little tight with a flat-lined budget.

Interestingly, the Planetary Society just released a report called Humans Orbiting Mars that outlines a way to hit NASA’s lofty goals without cranking up government funding.

The society’s plan proposes sending humans to orbit Mars in 2033, then landing on the surface before the end of the decade. But there’s a huge catch: This proposal only fits NASA’s budget if the organisation abandons its leading role in the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS annually eats up billions of dollars in NASA’s budget. (Mars aside, some scientists and policy experts say the return we get from the ISS is not enough to justify the huge price tag.)

Without a huge budget increase, NASA can’t pay for its Mars program without cannibalising other efforts.

“The issue is whether the next president provides the start-up funding for the next pieces of hardware that are required to do this,” space policy expert John Logsdon told the Washington Post. “And at what point do we stop spending $US3 billion a year on the space station.”

There’s hope that commercial spaceflight companies — and their own independent funding — could make a mission to Mars happen sooner. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX, for example, is designing rockets and spaceships capable of sending people to Mars. Musk’s progress looks promising so far, but it’s still too early to tell.

If private companies can’t get us there, then perhaps hype around “The Martian” and NASA’s big water-on-Mars announcement will help us get there. “Follow the water” is generally a good strategy in searching for alien life, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life is a pretty compelling reason to send a mission to Mars (although there are far better prospects farther out in the solar system).

Yet would a giant spike in public interest be enough to convince Congress to raise NASA’s budget? And could NASA sustain that excitement for a quarter of a century or longer, which is the time it’d take to develop, build, launch, and operate a Mars program? This seems unlikely.

Or maybe NASA is simply aiming too high, and it should first set up a moon base. This could better prepare the space agency for operating long-duration missions while bringing down the future cost of getting humans to Mars. Others argue there are far more interesting worlds in the solar system to explore — places much more likely to harbour life — and we should focus NASA’s resources on those.

As for me? There’s still something about sending humans to Mars that I can’t let go of. I think we should try our hardest to send people there within my lifetime — if only to know who will utter the first words on Mars, and what they will be.

NOW WATCH: 9 ways Matt Damon sciences the s— out of Mars in ‘The Martian’

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