Matt Damon, ‘The Martian,’ & the Lowell Connection


Okay, here’s another one of those Lowell connections. There’s a scene in the brilliant new film “The Martian” in which astronaut Mark Watney (actor Matt Damon of Massachusetts) travels to a remote location to uncover a craft sent to Mars long before his space mission. According to sources, it’s actually the “Mars Pathfinder” with a small robotic vehicle inside called “Sojourner.” In the movie, Watney first pulls up from the surface the cords and fabric of the airbags that cushioned the landing, which are attached to the buried vehicle. In real life, the airbags were prepared and specially coated for protection by a firm in Lowell called Bradford Industries, which gained worldwide attention as a NASA subcontractor when the space vehicle successfully landed on Mars on July 4, 1997.

I know something about this because I was doing freelance communications work at the time and was hired by Bradford to handle the publicity and media relations on the local end. What we were able to say was that the first thing to touch down on the Mars surface was the coating of the airbags, giving Lowell bragging rights for the day. As I recall, the Lowell Sun and Boston media, print and electronic, grabbed the story, which was picked up by news wire services. It was a very cool moment, and what a surprise it was to see the plot twist in the screenplay that brought “The Martian” around to the “Pathfinder” and “Soujourner” tucked inside that wind up helping the stranded “starman” get back to Earth.

Here are a few items with more information about the 1997 mission to Mars.

From Lowell’s Bradford Industries website:

“The extent of our expertise in the development of airbag materials resonated throughout the world when Bradford’s coating was deemed by NASA to be the most advanced means of cushioning the shock of the Pathfinder’s 60 MPH landing on the rocky surface of Mars.  As a result, our product became the first man-made material to ever touch the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997.”


“A historic NASA spacecraft makes more than just a cameo appearance in ‘The Martian,’ the new Ridley Scott movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars. The 20th Century Fox film, which opened in U.S. theaters on Friday (Oct. 2), follows NASA’s third crewed mission to land on the Red Planet in 2035. By the movie’s timeline,Ares 3 crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon) walks on Mars 23 years after the space agency’s most recent real-life ‘martian,’ the robotic rover “Curiosity,” arrived to search for environments habitable to supporting past and present life. But it’s not Curiosity that is in ‘The Martian.’ … Rather, it is NASA’s first Mars rover, and more specifically its three-petal lander, that Watney uses to contact Earth. ‘Mars Pathfinder’ and its small, six-wheeled ‘Sojourner’ rover touched down on Mars on July 4, 1997. For almost three months, the lander beamed back billions of bits of data, including tens of thousands of images, before it fell silent. The science gathered by the lander and rover suggested that Mars was warm and wet in its past, a finding that was confirmed by later NASA missions, including ‘Curiosity.'”

From Wikipedia:

“‘Mars Pathfinder’ (MESUR Pathfinder[1][5]) is an American robotic spacecraft that landed a base station with a roving probe onMars in 1997. It consisted of a lander, renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, and a lightweight (10.6 kg/23 lb) wheeled robotic Mars rover named ‘Sojourner.’ Launched on December 4, 1996, by NASA aboard a Delta II booster a month after the Mars Global Surveyor was launched, it landed on July 4, 1997, on Mars‘s Ares Vallis, in a region called Chryse Planitia in the Oxia Palus quadrangle. The lander then opened, exposing the rover which conducted many experiments on the Martian surface. The mission carried a series of scientific instruments to analyze the Martian atmosphere, climate, geology and the composition of its rocks and soil. It was the second project from NASA’s Discovery Program, which promotes the use of low-cost spacecraft and frequent launches under the motto “cheaper, faster and better” promoted by the then administrator, Daniel Goldin. The mission was directed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology, responsible for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. The project manager was JPL’s Tony Spear.”


2 Responses to Matt Damon, ‘The Martian,’ & the Lowell Connection

  1. lowellhistoricboard says:

    Another Lowell-space connection is that the Apollo command module heat shield coatings were developed and applied by AVCO which used to be located on Industrial Avenue. “The Apollo ablative heat shield developed by AVCO System Division of Lowell, MA, is a low-density composite material (Avco 5026-39G) consisting of a epoxy-novalac resin containing reinforced fibers. As part of the Apollo thermal protection subsystem, the ablative heat shield was designed to protect the Command Module during entry at Lunar-return velocities.”

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