Let's Talk About the One Scene of The Martian That's Incredibly Dumb

Friday, 02 October 2015 - 2:35PM
Space
Astrophysics
Mars
Friday, 02 October 2015 - 2:35PM
Let's Talk About the One Scene of The Martian That's Incredibly Dumb
The reviews are in, and The Martian is an extremely well-made film, from the perspectives of laymen and scientists alike. It's well-written, well-acted, and most of all, scientifically accurate, showing respect for the audience's intelligence by resisting the temptation to dumb everything down. At least, that's true for about 99% of the movie, until you get to this scene:



In the above clip, Donald Glover's unconventional astrophysicist Rich Purnell explains his proposed plan to allow the Hermes crew to rescue Mark Watney. Instead of stopping at Earth, the ship will use Earth's gravity to change course and accelerate towards Mars, pick up Watney in a flyby, and return home.

It would make sense for Purnell to explain a mission in detail if the maneuver were particularly obscure, but it's not. This is a fairly standard slingshot maneuver, nothing more, and NASA uses it all the time. NASA's space probes conduct flybys around Earth and other planets all the time in order to use their gravity to accelerate. Even non-scientists with an interest in space (like me) would be aware that Donald Glover is explaining a simple slingshot trajectory in painful detail. And considering the amount of hard science that appears in the movie, it's baffling that they felt the need to explicate this to that extent.

The scene is even more absurd when you consider who Purnell is talking to. Annie is a civilian, so she may need the explanation, but Purnell is primarily explaining it to Jeff Daniels's Teddy, who is the freaking director of NASA. He even reminds us of his position in the scene, which doesn't help. True, he's an administrator rather than an astrophysicist, but absolutely anyone who worked at NASA would know what a slingshot maneuver is.

As Time's Jeffrey Kluger put it, "a NASA Administrator who didn't know what a gravity assist was would be like a cardiac surgeon who couldn't find a heart inside a patient's chest." But even after Purnell is told that Teddy is the director of NASA, he still feels the need to explain it like he's talking to a five-year-old, and use a stapler and a pen to act the damn thing out. (And speaking of which, Purnell works for NASA. I don't believe for a second that he wouldn't know who Teddy was, no matter how spacey he is.)

It's not the fault of the source material, either; a similar scene occurs in Andy Weir's novel, but the explanation focuses much more on the technical details of Hermes's specific maneuver, rather than explaining the concept of a gravity assist. And there's certainly no goddamn stapler.
Science
NASA
Space
Astrophysics
Mars

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