Photo by Allan Davey/Masterfile/Corbis. Design by Lauren DeLuca for Yahoo Travel.
If seeing a location in a movie makes you want to go there, then should watching The Martian urge a trip to Mars? Well, maybe, but we’re still two decades away from putting a human on the Red Planet and NASA won’t exactly be shuttling average moviegoers on that several-month space journey.
But what the film, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as a NASA astronaut stuck on Mars after an accident causes his team to leave him for dead, has done is increase interest in learning about space and science – and there are trips you can take to boost that knowledge.
Take the Level 9 tour at Space Center Houston and you’ll get an up-close look at a Mars Rover. (NASA Photo/David DeHoyos)
The Martian, out today on Digital HD and January 12 on Blu-Ray and DVD, is set in 2035, so many of the set pieces in the film reflect that futuristic aesthetic. Houston Johnson Space Center, established in 1961 as NASA’s primary center for the development of human space flight, hosts much of the film’s Earth-bound drama, and NASA was instrumental in advising filmmakers on the story and its depicted technology. Although the movie didn’t actually shoot at Johnson (much of the production was done in Budapest), the production designer visited the facility to better understand mission control rooms and scientific developments, which is something you can also do.
The Martian is helping increase interest in space travel at a time when Mars travel is becoming increasingly likely. (Courtesy: 20th Century Fox)
The Johnson Space Center is one of Houston’s highest-ranking tourist attractions and draws nearly one million annual visitors to its Space Center Houston, the visitor’s wing of the Center. For the past four months, Space Center Houston has had record-breaking attendance and the number of people visiting their website is up over 10 percent, some of which may be attributed to The Martian’s October theatrical release.
“Films like Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian have reached many people all over the world and get people thinking about how space travel is possible,” says Meridyth Moore, Space Center Houston’s spokeswoman. “We’ve had visitors that enjoyed the films come to the center to experience our hands-on exhibits, the NASA Tram Tour, and watch our live presentations because they enjoy learning about human space exploration.”
A tour of Mission Control at Johnson Space Center. (NASA Photo/David DeHoyos)
For those travelers interested in creating an itinerary in Houston based around space travel, there are several options. Visit Houston suggests giving yourself three days to experience the city’s science-based offerings, which include Space Center Houston, the George Observatory and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Many visitors elect to stay in the Clear Lake area of Houston rather than downtown to be close to Johnson, but if you want to go full throttle you can book a suite at Hotel ZaZa, located in the city’s Museum District, that is dubbed “Houston We Have A Problem.” When it comes to meals, a hidden gem is Frenchie’s Italian Restaurant, an early hangout for the astronauts that is covered in memorabilia.
Visit Houston, which runs an online concierge service, has seen a definitive uptick in interest in Space Center Houston since the release of The Martian, a phenomenon that was true for the Museum of Natural Science after Jurassic World hit theaters this summer.
“Any time there is a film in Hollywood that speaks to an attraction in your city I think you definitely have an opportunity for exposure and we try to capitalize on that whenever possible,” says A.J. Mistretta, spokesperson for Visit Houston. “It makes sense that people want to go and experience firsthand something that exists that speaks to this. Houston is invested in this. We still consider ourselves Space City and that’s not going away anytime soon. We hold on to that and it’s something we take pride in.”
A replica shuttle on display at Space Center Houston. (Courtesy: Space Center Houston)
For Space Center Houston, which sells the original novel of The Martian in its gift shop and may also sell the film’s DVD and Blu-Ray, there are several options for visiting. The most popular attraction is the NASA Tram Tour, a 90-minute tour that goes behind the scenes at Johnson and runs $24.95 for adults and $19.95 for children under 11. The Center also offers a more exclusive Level 9 tour, which lasts four to five hours and gives visitors unprecedented access behind the scenes, allowing you to glimpse the Mars Rover currently being developed, the astronaut training facility, and Mission Control. Tickets for Level 9 run $99 per person and require advanced booking.
If Houston isn’t up your alley or you’re on the West Coast, Southern California also hosts several attractions to encourage an interest in space travel. Parts of The Martian are also set in Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research and development center for robotic space exploration. JPL offers free tours throughout the year (advanced reservations are highly recommended via their website), which showcase the Lab’s achievements and goals, many of which involve NASA’s current focus on Mars exploration. JPL also holds a yearly open house, which invites visitors in to tour the Lab. This year’s October open house brought 45,000 visitors over the course of two days, prompting JPL to note on the event’s Facebook page that “public interest in this year’s Open House is unprecedented.”
The California Science Center, located in Los Angeles, is home to the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which has helped boost its presence as a center for learning about the solar system and space travel. Admission is free and the Center is open every day except major holidays. William Harris, Senior VP of Development and Marketing, at the California Science Center, has found that there is a synergy in visitor interest and the popularity of films like The Martian.
The NASA tram tour for visitors at Space Center Houston. (Courtesy: Space Center Houston)
“The series of very successful space-themed Hollywood films like The Martian reflect the public’s ongoing fascination and interest in space exploration,” Harris notes. “While we have not surveyed guests on this question, our attendance has increased by one million guests a year since the Space Shuttle Endeavour was placed on exhibit.
“I do think feature films can generate greater public interest in science. Dreaming, creativity and imagination have led to our ability to travel in aircraft through our atmosphere and explore space.”
This boom of interest generated by Hollywood films benefits NASA, as well. Jim Green, the NASA Film Consultant who worked with filmmakers on The Martian, is glad that science fiction creates a public sense of wonder about space and an increased desire to seek new knowledge. The Martian, specifically, reveals the power of problem-solving and logic in the face of crisis and showcases what it might be like when NASA does finally get humans to Mars.
“It allows us to dream,” Green says. “It allows us to think ahead. The [real] aspect of The Martian is that it’s just around the corner. Indeed, the realities that we’re seeing in the movie are certainly accessible to us. The Martian really has that grasp and a thread of reality that runs through it. [And] it reaches a different audience – people that have different points of view, that understand and love science fiction can now see a little bit about what the future will be like.”
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