After the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to outer space in 1961, Nikita Khrushchev remarked, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn't see any god there.” The Soviets would not pass up an opportunity to deride religion, even though, reportedly, Gagarin himself was a Russian Orthodox Christian.
Americans, by contrast, are the sort of people who need to go to Mars to find God. Director Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed blockbuster film The Martian, based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, taps into this idea, the quintessential American theme of the great frontier and the aspiration for the transcendent that it signifies.
To get an idea of how American this story is -- even if only unintentionally -- consider that it centers on the journey of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who survives all alone in a hostile frontier against all odds. The theme has been part of the American national ideal all throughout our history.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick J. Turner gave a speech with an influential thesis: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He wrote:
The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people -- to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.
He continued to say, “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.” The Turner thesis is that this frontier experience uniquely shaped the institutions of American democracy and drove the unique development of the United States.
From The Great Gatsby to Star Trek, this has remained a recurring aspect of American identity long after the close of the American frontier in 1890. À propos of The Martian, former NASA scientist Robert Zubrin even continued Turner’s theme in his 1996 book The Case for Mars, which ends with an epilogue titled, “The Significance of the Martian Frontier.” He wrote:
The creation of a new frontier … presents itself as America’s and humanity’s greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon the values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.
For this reason, Zubrin wrote, “I believe that humanity’s new frontier can only be on Mars.”
We might say that God’s command to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) should not stop at the soil of this planet. Mars has what it takes to Zubrin because, unlike the moon or Antarctica or the bottom of the ocean, “It’s far enough away to free its colonists from intellectual or cultural domination by the old world, and … rich enough in resources to give birth to a new branch of human civilization.” He even adds, “If people are to have the dignity that comes with making their own world, they must be free of the old.”
This is an idea that is gaining more traction today, in part explaining the allure of The Martian. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin has a vision of human beings landing on Mars by 2035. Meanwhile, billionaire Elon Musk, with apparently no fear of being stereotyped as a supervillain, literally wants to nuke Mars (to terraform it).
Whatever its merits, however, Zubrin’s Martian frontier may be overly literal. It is not the frontier itself but the desire for it that is really the heart of the matter: “that restless, nervous energy,” as Turner put it. There is something universal at the bottom of this American idea. As St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord … You made us for Yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in You.” Augustine situates this desire in the midst of the realization that “man is surrounded by his mortality,” which is the very thing that makes The Martian so thrilling.
Stranded on Mars, Watney summarizes the stark odds against him early on in the film: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.” Even if he solves all those problems, “None of this matters at all if I can't find a way to make contact with NASA.”
What if he fails? Says Watney, Yogi Berra-like, “If I die doing something greater than myself, I can live with that.” No doubt Augustine would point out that this desire for something that transcends our world and our mortality, born of the struggle for freedom and survival in a harsh frontier, reflects the heart’s restless longing for the God in whose image we were created.
That desire has been at the heart of American identity since Plymouth Rock. It is at the basis of scientific discovery and invention, a point central to The Martian, but Augustine reminds us that it is equally at the basis of religion, as well. The Martian offers viewers a taste of that same enchantment of endless possibility, despite all our limitations, that confronted the early settlers when their eyes first beheld the shores of New England. It shows a new generation the story of the pioneer, braving an uncharted wilderness for the hope of a better life.
And if it can do that, then it can remind us too that no adventure, romance, aspiration, invention, discovery, country, continent, planet, or any other frontier can still our restless hearts, which can only find their rest in God.