Why am I using an engineering/construction blog to write a movie review? Because The Martian is, in the words of British physicist Brian Cox, “the best advert for a career in engineering I’ve ever seen.”
In case you’re unaware, The Martian is about an astronaut, played by Matt Damon, who gets stranded on Mars when his crew leaves him for dead. He uses his ingenuity and the limited resources of the crew’s habitat to stay alive, solving one problem after another – both the urgent (like how to keep from suffocating when debris breaches his EVA spacesuit) and the long-term (like how to maintain his food supply). Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA engineers of all ranks coordinate a plan to bring him home.
The science is basically accurate, using technologies (and limitations) that exist today. Damon’s character uses electrolysis to create water, a process that actually works. The crew’s spacecraft rotates to generate artificial gravity, which has worked experimentally and is the most plausible method yet conceived. There’s a speed-of-light time delay in communications between Earth and Mars.
“Engineering” basically means “problem solving,” and this movie has it in spades. The plot is plausible, if unlikely, tapping our fascination with space travel to keep us enthralled. I love the variety of challenges, and the variety of people who overcome them. As I always tell folks who ask about my job, engineering careers are creative and collaborative, and they can lead to amazing accomplishments. The Martian showcases all these qualities at their best.