Episode 379: The Space Program of the 50s, 60s, 70s…and Today

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle the science, politics, and music of the Ridley Scott movie “The Martian.”

otip-logo-podcastoneBen Adams, Pete Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Ryan Sheely tackle the science, politics, and music of the Ridley Scott movie The Martian.


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16 Comments on “Episode 379: The Space Program of the 50s, 60s, 70s…and Today”

  1. Derdrom #

    I finally ordered a shave set from Harry’s. One of you said the $5 discount was for the Truman set. “Well actually,” it is also good for the Winston set.


    • Fred Firestine #

      I am a Harry’s customer too. I like the blades, but I think I like the shaving cream more. I have a tough beard, and the combination works well for me compared to my previous experience of scraping my face and getting nicks on a daily basis.


  2. Fred Firestine #

    You ask, “Why disco?” I say, “How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more!”


  3. Mark Lee OTI Staff #

    “I Will Survive” was a perfect, on-the-nose music choice for this movie, but you know what else would have been equally perfect and on-the-nose?

    “Stayin’ Alive.” Now that I’ve realized this, I’m a little disappointed it wasn’t in the movie.

    On a related note: when I was in middle school, I had a brief obsession with disco music and disco dancing via the movie “Airplane.” I suspect I’m not the only person who grew up in the years after disco who was similarly introduced to the music in this way.



    • jmasoncooper #

      Yes Airplane! was the key to my interest in dancing at all. (Not that anyone wants to see me, a white dude with no rhythm, dance.) It was amusing in high school but now it is just sad. My dancing, not Airplane! That junk is hilarious!


  4. Tulse #

    I think the use of disco in the film actually serves a very important role. It obviously provides a strong contrast to the orchestral, classically inspired, occasionally ponderous music typical of space films — ABBA and Gloria Gaynor won’t be confused for Ligeti and Strauss. But I think the nature of the contrast is also important, in large part due to the contemporary attitude towards disco. Popular culture now seems to view disco with a lot of ironic detachment, much more so than any other historical genre of music, and I think the film uses that to reinforce the whole attitude of the film. Watney’s situation is definitely desperate, but his wry take on things, his ability to see the occasional absurdity of his situation, is all reinforced by the music choice. It would be a much different film if Lewis were a fan of metal, or blues, or sensitive singer-songwriters.

    (I also wonder if disco would produce the same sense of irony in the near future setting of the film, or whether in a few decades people will view it as we currently do older music like Glenn Miller.)

    And while I don’t want to touch on the hot-button issue of religion too much, I will note that the book’s approach to religion is very different than the film’s. The film is far more conventionally pious or earnestly spiritual — the book seems to see religion as largely irrelevant. For example, in the passage discussing the cross that Watney burns, here’s a bit from the book:

    I chipped his [Martinez’s] sacred religious item into long splinters using a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. I figure if there is a God, He won’t mind, considering the situation I’m in.

    Here, Watney doesn’t address the Jesus figure on the crucifix directly, but talks about if there is a god. And the contrast of the “sacred item” being destroyed is played for humour.

    Likewise, the discussion during the probe launch of Kapoor’s religious beliefs is also played far less earnestly, and largely for humor:

    “Do you believe in God, Venkat?” Mitch asked.
    “Sure, lots of ’em,” Venkat said. “I’m Hindu.”
    “Ask ’em all for help with this launch.”
    “Will do.”

    And the passage that I think epitomizes the view of religion of the book is towards the very end, where Martinez, the one who’s cross Watney burns, is talking with Lewis:

    “He’ll pull through, Commander. Have faith.”
    She smiled forlornly. “Rick, you know I’m not religious.”
    “I know,” he said. “I’m not talking about faith in God, I’m talking about faith in Mark Watney. Look at all the shit Mars has thrown at him, and he’s still alive.”

    A person who is explicitly religious encourages someone to put faith in the ingenuity of another human being. That I think sums up the book’s approach to religion.

    I’d love to see an OTI piece that does a deep dive comparing Gravity to The Martian, because although both films involve someone marooned off Earth who survives via wits and ingenuity, I think the messages of the film are diametrically opposed.


    • Margo #

      Although not strictly a religious holiday, Thanksgiving has great cultural significance in Canada and the US and NASA is an American institution. The potatoes play a similar role to the Crucifix. If this sentimental holiday was not deemed worthy of observing by NASA and the Ares III crew, Mark would have had no potatoes and would not have survived.


  5. coughin_ed #

    off topic a bit: Pete, did you ever end up seeing Boyhood?

    i just saw it for the first time the other day and id really like to hear your take on it.

    also! the TFT theme song makes an appearance during the film!


  6. Meredith #

    There are times when I put my Overthinking It listening on hold to avoid spoilers, but this week’s podcast has definitely enhanced my anticipation of seeing The Martian, disco and all. There’s no setting more isolating than space and it will be interesting to see how a (typically) upbeat soundtrack fits in.

    A brief note for Pete that I can’t resist: no need to distinguish which Glorfindel you’re discussing, as he was re-embodied by the Valar following his fall in Gondolin. He returned to Middle-Earth in either the Second or Third Age, explaining his presence in Rivendell.


  7. Margo #

    The Hermes struck me as a large, beautiful spaceship with a gleaming white interior reminiscent of the iconic Jupiter-bound craft in 2001, minas HAL the insane AI. I’m sure the design was deliberate, as it recalls the more optimistic vision of space travel of the 60’s and Early70’s. I read somewhere that The Martian takes place in 2035, which seems like a wildly optimistic prediction for a third manned Mars mission. I like the theory that The Martian instead provides us with an alternate Present. This would explain why the cars, phones, and computers on Earth are almost identical to our own. A reminder that it’s not technology holding us back from sending ourselves to Mars, but rather funding, politics, and competing priorities.


    • jmasoncooper #

      I feel like your reasoning is super sound @Margo. Funding, politics, and competing priorities are “the” thing getting in the way.

      I do want to bring up an important question though: Why Mars?

      Many of the same challenges that we face on Mars could be tested out by creating underwater ocean colonies, colonies on space stations, or colonies on Mars.

      Is there nothing scientific left to learn about the moon? Is the science that can be done with manned space flight to mars so compelling that closer colonization is not a priority?

      Dear Internet, what say you?


      • jmasoncooper #

        Sorry, edit second paragraph: Many of the same challenges that we face colonizing Mars could be tested out by creating underwater ocean colonies, colonies on space stations, or colonies on the moon.


        • Margo #

          I don’t think Ocean Floor colonies are a good idea as they would disrupt the ecosystem and disturb the pre-existing life down there. Not that this ever stopped us before. We are already leaving stuff on Mars and the Ares III mission didn’t seem to have any moral qualms about burying the Super Dangerous Reactor in the presumably virgin Martian soil.

          You do raise a good point about a Moon colony. One reason why Mars is a more appealing prospect for colonization is that it has an atmosphere (albeit a thin one) that can theoretically be terraformed into something habitable via a deliberate greenhouse effect. What could possibly go wrong? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy does into this in excellent detail.


      • Tulse #

        Why Mars? There are a few reasons:

        – Mars is one of the few spots in the Solar System where life could have developed in the past, and may still be there today. Granted, as we’ve learned more about the gas giant moons and their potential subsurface oceans, they have perhaps even more likely candidates for extant life, but Mars is still much closer, and much easier to explore (as opposed to having to drill through several kilometres of ice).

        – Mars is one of the few spots in the Solar System where humans could potentially establish a self-sustaining colony. The Moon is closer, and probably easier to colonize because of that, but any colony there will always be dependent on access to Earth. It is possible (in theory) to have actual settlers on Mars, independent of Earth, even without terraforming the entire planet.

        – Humans have never been to Mars, whereas they have been to the Moon. As a result, the Moon is seen as kinda…boring. (I think that’s an unfair assessment of its potential, but I think that’s also the political reality.)


  8. Mike #

    Did the guys touch upon the bizarre sanction this move had on mentioning Russia or the Russian space agency? Russia for several years now is the only country that has been sending people to space/ISS and will be for several more years. Even despite the apocalyptic 90s, Russia has a consistent and functioning manned space program from the very start.
    Will the new American space era be one based on propaganda too? That is not an effective plan. We need to recognize and work with EVERYONE.

    Note. I really hate the idea of privatizing space and space flights. Keep it for the people, by the people.


    • Tulse #

      I’ve read the book a couple of times, and seen the movie a couple of times, and it never occurred to me that the Russians weren’t mentioned at all. That’s an excellent point.

      I do think that privatizing certain aspects of space is essential for space exploration to go beyond what we currently have. If we didn’t have privatized air travel, with private companies building planes for a mass market, and private companies flying them, we wouldn’t have anything like the air infrastructure we do now. It is grossly inefficient for the government to build its own planes, just as it doesn’t build its own cars and trucks, or its own computers (except for military purposes, and even then, some infrastructure is repurposed commercial products). By having a vibrant private sector space industry, the government can piggyback on that infrastructure to mount expeditions that wouldn’t make sense for a private corporation.

      In other words, I have no problem if the government wants to buy its space trucks from SpaceX or some other company, rather than build them itself. I have no problem with the government purchasing off-the-shelf rockets from private firms, and then using them to do things that private firms would never do.


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