WIUM Tristates Public Radio

"The Martian" Has Ties to Southeast Iowa

Oct 23, 2015

Dr. Jim Green knew early on that he wanted a career in science because that was one of the subjects he was good at in school. He said he also enjoyed it, adding he was able to narrow his focus down a bit thanks to an astronomy class he took as a junior at Burlington High School.

"There were like 15-20 of us in that class," said Green. "I dearly loved it. I got to use the Witte telescope all of the time. I really enjoyed it so I knew when I went to the University of Iowa that I would get a degree in astronomy."

Green ended up earning a Ph.D. in Space Physics from the University of Iowa, where he worked directly on Hawkeye I, a satellite used to collect data and particles about Earth's magnetosphere. That experience led him to work for five years at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and 20 years at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center before he moved to NASA's headquarters.

In 2006, Green was named Director of NASA's Planetary Studies Division, which placed him in charge of mapping the solar system. So as part of that role, he is directly involved in research and missions regarding the planet Mars.

That experience gained Green a new job title: Movie Consultant.

Famed director Ridley Scott contacted NASA about his new movie, The Martian. The film adaptation of a book by the same name stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who is stranded on Mars..

More than 100 people turned out for Dr. Green's presentation at SCC
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

Green jumped at the opportunity to work with Scott.

"I loved Ridley Scott," said Green. "One of my favorite movie is Alien. I have watched that maybe 50-times, so it was easy to say, 'Yes, I would talk to Ridley.' Once I knew that Ridley was trying to develop a movie where he was trying to paint a picture of a realistic Mars, I wanted to help him."

Green said while the vast majority of the movie is scientifically accurate when it comes to conditions on Mars, one scene is not. He said the dust storm that caused Matt Damon's character to become separated from the rest of his crew would not have happened as portrayed in the movie.

"[The dust storm] would not have caused any of the problems that forced [the other astronauts] off the planet," said Green. "But that's OK. The author, Andy Weir, who wrote the book that the movie is based on, told me that he could have come up with a whole series of things to have left [Matt Damon's character] on Mars that would have been technically accurate. But this is really a man vs. nature story, so he said [he] really wanted nature to get in the first punch and [Weir] wanted it to be a good one."

Green said he read scripts for the movie and made suggestions about how Mars would be in a particular scene. He said those suggestions were not always acted upon, which he was OK with because the production team was trying to follow the book as closely as possible. But the team did follow many of his suggestions.  For example, Green said the lightning in the movie is the result of his recommendation, which he based on recent research.

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

"The dust storms on Mars, actually, we have found that there are lightning strikes that occur. So in the movie, you see some lightning strikes that are associated with the dust storms. They are not in the book because [the author] did not know it because they are a brand new discovery. So there are a few things like that along the way that when I see them, I smile and say 'I did that' or 'I suggested that.'"

Green said his role was not to make The Martian even more scientifically accurate, it was to really help paint a picture of what Mars is really like.

Green returned to southeast Iowa to give a lecture at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, where he talked about his role with the movie and about his research into the planet Mars. During the roughly two hour presentation, which was simulcast to several locations, he said NASA's goal is to have boots on the ground on Mars by the 2040's-2050's.

Green said to do that, NASA must focus more on Mars' past, studying locations that have not been examined before. He said several billion years ago, Mars was similar to Earth in that it had a climate with water that could support life. Green said there's no complex life on Mars, but he said it's unclear if life has been on Mars in the past, or is there today.

"If there  is life on Mars today, its probably microbial. It's the first start of life so there might be a life cycle on Mars, where [the planet] had a more complex level of life and now that's died off and we are back at the microbial level. If we found life beyond Earth, than that tells us that life is everywhere in our Milky Way. That's such a revolutionary idea."