2015 moments: Our imagination soars to Mars

Matt Damon in a scene from "The Martian." In 2015, Mars became both a focus of both real and imaginary pursuits.
Aidan Monaghan / Twentieth Century Fox 

Matt Damon in a scene from "The Martian." In 2015, Mars became both a focus of both real and imaginary pursuits.
A strong indicator that someone is having a “moment” is the degree to which that person has been co-opted by popular culture, seized and extruded through the die of the human imagination. Lots of people had that kind of year in 2015. But only one planet did.
Our fascination with Mars never really flags. But this year it seemed to hit a particularly high pitch, with chatter ricocheting out of the lab and into popular discourse — or in the reverse. And thanks to hardworking scientists, there were plenty of developments from the world of fact to fuel Martian fervour.
NASA’s Curiosity rover marked two milestones this year: its third anniversary on the red planet’s surface and 10 kilometres of ground covered in its mission to assess Mars’ former and current habitability. The rover trundled its way across Mount Sharp, snapping selfies and analyzing soil and air.
But the biggest Martian science of 2015 came from another, hoarier instrument: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a decade-old space probe whose primary mission ended in 2008 and is now operating on a second extension. In September, scientists announced that the orbiter had captured the strongest evidence yet that water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
The news, and the pictures, boomeranged around the world. Streaky flows that appear to ebb and flow on the slopes of Mars’ Hale Crater (known as “recurring slope lineae”) were found to contain hydrated salts, evidence that liquid water — if briny enough to burn flesh — exists now, not just in the planet’s distant past.
Perhaps even more stunningly, NASA’s scientists seemed to immediately seize on the news as an opportunity to pitch a human mission to Mars.
“Today’s announcement of a really fascinating result about current water on Mars is one of the reasons why I feel it’s even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists,” John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the time.
It was a good time to raise the possibility with the public and with purse-string-holding politicians. That same week, the blockbuster geekscapade The MartianThe Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, burst into theatres, building Mars-mission talk from a chatter to a bona fide uproar. The movie features a left-for-dead astronaut struggling to survive on Mars while his heroic teammates at NASA mission control struggle to bring him home, and neither Fox nor NASA were shy about cross-promoting the film.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released images of real regions of the planet where fictional scenes take place in the movie (and the book it was adapted from). Cast members and NASA scientists co-operated in a live discussion for schoolchildren at the Kennedy Space Center.
“It was a quiet year for Mars, but the Martian movie coming out shone a spotlight on Mars and NASA’s PR wheel went to work,” says Paul Delaney, a York University astronomer. “I’m not trying to downplay these fairly important announcements, but it’s not like we haven’t been following these for a while,” he added, referring to the recurring slope lineae.
Earlier in the year, another portal to human visitation on Mars appeared to creak closed. Mars One, a not-for-profit corporation that had claimed it would establish a human settlement on Mars by 2025, began to be questioned in the media. The group had long made claims that it would send humans on a one-way trip, which were then repeated without much critical analysis in the popular press. In February, the group revealed their shortlist of 100 astronaut candidates.
But one of those candidates, astrophysicist Joseph Roche, began speaking to the media: in the selection process for what would be the longest duration space flight in human history, no one had ever interviewed him in person, he said, and a list of “top candidates” was simply ordered by a ranking determined by who donated more money to the venture (Mars One says the mission will cost $6 billion, while the unmanned Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion). If Mars One began drawing more scrutiny this year, perhaps it was because the idea of human space flight to the red planet began to move from the realm of pure fiction into the possible. But while a mission becomes ever more realistic from a technical perspective, much more is needed for one to be approved.
“We’ve been saying we’re going to put a person on Mars in the next 20 years, and we’ve been saying that since 1970,” says Delaney. “I don’t really think we’re a whole lot closer today. Not because of technology, but because of the political will and the money to do it. The science and the technology is truly, I think, within our grasp.”

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