“The Space Between Us”: the first boy born on Mars is almost Christ-like

The Space Between Us”, in this sweet sci-fi fable by Peter Chelsom (story was a group effort of Stewart Schill, Richard Barton Lewis and Allan Loeb) is probably about 15 light-minutes, the based on the time it would take for light (or an Internet message in a chat room) to get from Earth to Mars – it can vary a lot with orbital positions.

In fact, a similar concept motivates one of my own screenplay scripts, “69 Minutes to Titan”, about which I’ve actually gotten one call.

That’s the one serious flaw in the setup of this rooting-interest film.  While still on Mars, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), now 16, and the first human born on Mars, chats with Tulsa (Britt Robertson) on Earth. No problem with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg (rather than running for president) has set up Facebook on Mars;  but it would have to follow the laws of physics, which would slow down communications.

The movie is a bit hokey as it set up the situation.  But astronaut Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery) had a hidden fling before leaving for Mars, and experiences her first “morning sickness” on the voyage.  They really have a first rate clinic on Mars already, but she dies in giving birth, maybe because of low gravity. Gardner will be raised by colleagues, including at least one woman who has said she had never intended to have or raise children.  Point well taken.

It’s a good question how Gardner grows up not only brilliant (with hacking computers and driving Mars rovers without permission) but sweet and socially well adjusted (even as a robot is his best friend – he tells the robot that it doesn’t have emotions).  He’s learned morality, like his dad had once said, “bravery is about not knowing what to be afraid of, but courage happens when you do know.”  Of course, he wants to move to Earth to have a real young adult life and he doesn’t want to ghost his Facebook girlfriend  Later, before tracking down Tulsa in a California public high school by pretending to be an AP chemistry student (he knows the material well enough to place in college), be befriends a homeless man and then a dog, getting all these creatures to trust him.  Kept in quarantine to protect himself, he escapes and plays “Catch Me If You Can” like a younger DiCaprio.

But the medical issues come back.  Before coming to Earth, Gardner had a procedure to strengthen his bones with carbon nanotubes (I think Jack Andraka –  who inspired his own depiction in a space suit as “Nanoman” on Twitter, had suggested this idea in a tweet once)   But once on Earth, despite running around a lot, his heart enlarged because of having to adjust to Earth’s mass – gravity, making him weigh 2-1/2 times as much as he did on Mars.   The doctors want a heart transplant.

The last twenty minutes give us real cliff-hanging, including a weightlessness ride (which rests his heart) before home-sweet-home.  Mars will need more babies.

The movie does not look at the question of indigenous life on Mars (neither did “The Martian” with Matt Damon).  However, a recent series on NatGeo “Mars” (reviewed on one of my legacy blogs) indeed does so.

I have to come back to Gardner’s charismatic presence.  Gardner is so compelling with his smarts that he seems to be a reincarnation.  His demeanor and speech style resemble the real life Taylor Wilson (the book “The Boy Who Played With Fusion”),, now 22, who invented a fusion reactor in his garage.  (Or, Taylor could have acted in this role with the same effect.)

I could offer one other comparison to the idea of a teenager born on another planet: Clark Kent in the WB series “Smallville“.  You wonder what Clark’s legal rights would be:  unlike Garnder, he is a real alien, but still a person.

Wikipedia link for sources of methane on Mars.


Name: “The Space Between Us”
Director, writer:  Peter Chelsom
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/2/9, afternoon, small audience
Length:  108
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  STX Entertainment
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 8:30 PM EST)

“Hidden Figures”: three women overcome racial and gender discrimination in NASA to help with the space program; the workplace issues were fascinating

Hidden Figures”, directed by Theodore Melfi, and written with Allison Schroeder, and based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, chronicles the contributions of three African-American female mathematician-engineers to the NASA space program from the mid 1950s until 1962, when one of the women’s calculations becomes crucial to John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) 3-orbit Project Mercury spaceflight.  These calculations involved certain specifics of orbital mechanics (elliptical and parabolic paths).

The women were Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji R. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  The movie starts in West Virginia in 1928 (black and white) where the women overcome racism to go to good colleges, and then shifts to the 1950s.

The time scale of the film is a little misleading.  Wikipedia biographies indicate that the women worked in the 1950s into the 60s.  The movie narrative focuses on 1961 and usually shows pictures of President Kennedy, but one or two scenes show Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate during the 1960 debates. The film works in Sputnik (1957) and the narratives of successful Soviet orbital space flights, pressuring the US to catch up and take the lead under Kennedy.

Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the tough-guy boss who gradually overcomes his own racism because he has to.  The engineers work together in a large open bay, solving problems by hand and with calculators.  The arrival of the “IBM” mainframe computer is a big deal.  The film shows what early mainframe computing was like (what computer rooms looked like then with the card readers and tape drives) pretty accurately.  One of the women becomes proficient in the “new” FORTRAN programming language.

The narrative is set up as happening at NASA in Hampton, Virginia, above Norfolk, in the Tidewater. The regimentation of the work is notable, as is the now shocking adherence to segregation, not only in bathrooms but even coffee machines.  The point is well made that Virginia was still segregated despite the Supreme Court 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.

I found myself fascinated by the parallels to my own early work career settings.  I worked as a “mathematician” for David Taylor Model Basin in the summers of 1965-1967, and then for NAVCOSSACT at the Washington Navy Yard from 1971-1972.  But my duties comprised mainly coding FORTRAN calculation subroutines on coding sheets, which would get keypunched and submitted in card decks. It is true that formulas and calculations were often developed manually, but this usually occurred at a much slower pace than shown in the film, and usually by people in offices with one or two people.

But during my time at NAVCOSSACT, a friend and coworker with a similar academic background had a mathematics paper published (I even pre-reviewed it). At an earlier “operations research” job at RCA Labs in Princeton, NJ, I helped develop equations for an assembly line model which was then coded into FORTRAN.  Later, at another job for Lewin in 1988-1989, hospital financial performance simulation models were coded in COBOL after the equations were developed by mathematicians.  That was one of the strangest jobs in my career.  A lot of this is covered in Chapter 4 of my DADT-III book.

It is a challenge, to be sure, to reproduce the workplace in a commercial entertainment film and make it entertaining.  The real truth is more subtle and drawn out than screenwriters can convey in two hours.  This film tries to make the solving of math problems on the board exciting.  I did that, as a substitute teacher, and even when giving a technical talk on my Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation“) for my first job at RCA.

When I was stationed at Fort Eustis, VA when in the Army, I had the MOS of “Mathematician”, or “01E20”.  But I recall doing very little math there.  In the Pentagon, I worked a bit on force development simulations, but there was no real equation development like in the film.  But I do remember a trip to Fort Belvoir where I did see this kind of math being used by the Corps of Engineers.  While at Fort Eustis, I knew an engineer who worked for NASA at Hampton, having met him in the Newport News chess club – and we were of almost exactly equal strength in chess, splitting the games.

The obvious comparison for this film will be “The Right Stuff” (1983) by Philip Kaufman, with Sam Shepard and Scott Glenn (Warner Brothers), which I saw at Northpark in Dallas that year.

Name: “Hidden Figures”
Director, writer:  Theodore Melfi, Margaret Lee Shetterley (book)
Released:  2016 end of year
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Common, 2017/1/9, fair audience for a weekday afternoon
Length:  237
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of NASA at Hampton. Included picture is at NASA Kennedy in Titusville, FL, my trip, 2015.

(Posted: Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)

“The Last Man on the Moon”, and why haven’t we been there since 1972?


Name: The Last Man on the Moon
Director, writer:  Robert Craig
Released:  2014
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play
Length 95
Rating NA
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Link: official

It still seems remarkable that Man has not walked on the Moon since December 1972. Instead of the colonization of space (away from Earth orbit), technological singularities have focused on communication – the Internet – and maybe artificial intelligence, maybe even nanobots in medicine.

“The Last Man on the Moon”, directed by Mark Craig, gives a biography of Eugene Cernan, who would indeed walk the Moon as part of Apollo 17.

The scenery toward the end is breathtaking – how can nature provide such an abstract landscape in black-and-white?  It’s art.

The most interesting part of the documentary occurs early, in the mid 1960s, when Cernan, like many other potential astronauts, was invited to undergo unbelievably intrusive medical screening (every orifice), only diagrammed in animation. NASA said, “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, but gave him a “job” as one of the astronauts in training.

The film somewhat glosses over the famous “One Step for Mankind” event on July 20, 1969 – Moonwalk, an event that would psychologically prepare western society for a world where moral and ethical values can be perturbed by technology.  It barely mentions “Apollo 13”, Ron Howard’s 1995 film for Universal, which I saw twice (once on a flight home from California) where astronauts nearly got stranded by a fuel tank accident.  That film showed some of the early preparations for the voyage (like the chest chakra scraping scene).


Cernan says that working as an astronaut forced him to live as if he were “single” and led him to put his family on the back burner as a priority.   That’s obviously going to be an issue for Elon Mush when he starts sending people to Mars.   Some voyages may be more suitable for introverted and single people.

Wikipedia attribution link for Cernan picture on Moon, p.d., NASA

(Published: Tuesday, October 4, 206 at 11:30 PM EDT)