Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 8 2015 1:11 PM

Here’s What Facebook Is Giving Us Instead of a Dislike Button

Mark Zuckerberg said last month that Facebook was building something along the lines of a dislike button, but he wasn’t clear on what that meant. Now, we can all stop speculating: Facebook is testing a new set of emoji-based “reactions” to add some nuance to the social network.

In addition to “liking” something with a thumbs up, you can now express sentiments of love, laughter, happiness, surprise, sadness, and anger—a bit like how you can react to messages on the chat platform Slack. The buttons line up with Zuckerberg’s assertion that “what [users] really want is an ability to express empathy.” The emoji rollout is the closest thing we’ll get to the fervently requested dislike button, which was probably never going to happen.


When Zuckerberg alluded to the feature in September, Slate’s Will Oremus prophesized about what it could be:

If I had to guess, I’d say the most likely possibility is this: Facebook will give you the option, when you post something, to enable your friends and followers to respond with a button other than “like,” such as “sympathize,” or “agree,” or, I don’t know, “hug”—but only for that specific post. It’s possible the word “dislike” will be among those options, although I still think that’s unlikely.

We can’t “hug” a post (yet), but Oremus was right about the expanded reactions. It will give users more control over how they interact with friends or news articles. If you really dig your cousin’s funny baby video, “yay” it. Shocked that McDonalds is serving breakfast all day? You can respond with a “wow.” The options also enable users to express sadness or anger over tragic news events, which don’t beg to be “liked.”

So far, Facebook is only testing the feature in Spain and Ireland, so it can work out the buttons’ usability before their full release. The new reactions will be available on both mobile and desktop.

Not only will the new button additions quench Facebook’s thirst for subtlety, but it will also help the data-hungry company “fine-tune its news-feed algorithms,” as Oremus wrote. Whether that’s good or bad, it’s sure to make news feeds that much more individualized. 

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Oct. 8 2015 1:09 PM

Why You Should Eat Your Airplane Boarding Pass Once You Take Your Seat

In honor of National Cyber Security Awareness Month, here’s one more thing to worry about: airplane tickets. Earlier this week, Brian Krebs reported on his blog that it’s possible to extract a surprising amount of information from the barcodes and QR codes on boarding passes.

Krebs explains that one of his readers wrote in with this information after realizing that he was able to use an online barcode reader to decode the information in a photo of a boarding pass that a friend had posted to Facebook. In addition to easily accessible data like the ticket holder’s name, the code yielded details such as his frequent flyer number and his travel record locator.


If this doesn’t sound like much, consider that Krebs’ reader was able to access his friend’s account with Lufthansa using the data he’d pulled. Coupled with some basic social hacking—using publicly available Facebook information to guess the answer to security questions—this allowed him far reaching access to, and control over, otherwise private resources. (I reached out to Lufthansa for comment but did not get a response.)

As some commenters on Krebs’ post point out, different airlines package different amounts of information into the scannable portions of their documents. Some apparently include nothing more than what’s already indicated in plain text. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that the seemingly illegible sections of our tickets may be disquietingly chatty to those in the know.

Krebs cites one researcher who proposes, “I would also recommend not leaving your boarding pass on the aircraft when you disembark.” Meanwhile, Krebs himself writes that you may want to “consider tossing the boarding pass into a document shredder.” Here at Slate, we fear that that may not be enough. We suggest that you instead eat your boarding pass as soon as you have found your seat. Chew thoroughly. 

Who ever said airplane food was terrible?

Oct. 8 2015 12:06 PM

Netizen Report: Did Egypt Block Voice Calls on WhatsApp and Skype?

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Mary Aviles, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz, Lisa Ferguson, Weiping Li, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

In Egypt, many users reported this week that they could not use voice-calling features on Skype, WhatsApp, or Viber. Technology consultant and digital activist Amr Gharbeia has been tracking these developments and interviewing users across the country to ascertain what exactly is happening and whether the apparent blocks on certain services came as the result of a government order. On Facebook, Gharbeia wrote that long-distance VoIP calls via Skype have been blocked in Egypt since 2010 but that this appeared to have extended to WhatsApp during the first week of October. He continued:

There are conflicting reports about the state’s policy regarding blocking. Official statements from NTRA [Egypt’s telecommunications regulator] deny blocking, customer service representatives publicly deny blocking, but after pressure they mention to a lot of complaining users that blocking decision is ordered by NTRA. …
Using the Internet for long distance calling is illegal, punishable by jail or fine according to the article 72 of the telecommunications law issued in 2003. This law is one of many flaws in the telecommunications law, but even with that, it is stated that protecting consumers’ interests is part of NTRA’s mission.

Thai netizens stage virtual sit-in
The Thai Ministry of Information and Communications Technology has been ordered to reduce infrastructure connecting Thailand to the global Internet so that all traffic will pass through a single gateway, allowing the government greater capacity to monitor and potentially filter online content. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the National Council for Peace and Order (the ruling junta) made establishing a single gateway for Internet traffic an “urgent priority” in the days following the coup in May 2014. In response to the proposal, Thai netizens staged a “virtual sit-in” on Sept. 30 by flooding government websites with traffic that forced them to go offline. The gateway is another in a series of measures the NCPO has taken to curtail free expression since the coup, including passing a draconian security law and cracking down on journalists and independent media.

Two arrested in Lebanon for Facebook posts
Journalist Mohammad Nazzal was sentenced in absentia to six months in jail and a fine of $700 over a post he published on Facebook two years ago that contained the sentence "the judicial system is as low as my shoes," which authorities say constituted libel and defamation. In a separate case, political activist Michel Douaihy was detained for nine days over a Facebook post in which he criticized authorities’ treatment of radical Sunni cleric Ahmed Al Assir during his arrest last August.

Vietnamese blogger released from prison
Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan was released from prison after serving three years of a 10-year sentence. She was arrested on anti-state charges for her work reporting on corruption and abuse within the police and court systems.

Student detained in Indonesia for publishing evidence of police extortion
An Indonesian university student was detained and charged with defaming a police officer after uploading a video of the office attempting to extort him for money during a routine traffic stop. He has been charged under Indonesia’s Electronic Transaction and Information Act.

Jailed Syrian developer moved to undisclosed location
Syrian-Palestinian software engineer Bassel Khartabil was moved from his prison to an unknown location, leading to fears that his life may be in danger. Bassel was detained by the Syrian government on March 15, 2012, and tortured for five days before being held incommunicado for nine months. He was finally charged in December 2012 with “spying for an enemy state” and was transferred to Adra Prison, where he remained until Oct. 3, 2015. An online petition calls for his immediate release.

Organization of American States condemns Peru’s “Stalker Law”
The special rapporteur for free expression for the Organization of American States raised concerns about a proposed surveillance law in a letter to the Peruvian government. The law, formally known as the Legislative Decree No. 1182 but known among digital activists as “Ley Stalker” (“Stalker Law”), would allow law enforcement authorities access to mobile phone data without a warrant and requires telecommunication companies to retain data for up to three years. The rapporteur emphasized the need for such legislation to undergo public debate and asked for more information about the justification for and proportionality under existing laws.

No more ‘Safe Harbor’ for US tech companies, says EU court
The European Court of Justice declared the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor Agreement to be invalid in a landmark decision this week. Under Safe Harbor, the EU afforded the transfer of commercial data between the EU and the U.S. despite the EU’s higher standards for privacy protections, provided that signatory U.S. companies agree to comply with a set of privacy principles. However, the court indicated that the revelations of PRISM and U.S. government surveillance of data undermined this agreement and Europeans’ right to privacy.

New Research
Balancing Act: Press Freedom at Risk as EU Struggles to Match Action With Values”—Committee to Protect Journalists

Oct. 7 2015 1:40 PM

How Can Science Help With Diplomacy—and Diplomacy Help With Science?

Diplomacy is an art, not a science. But science is increasingly playing an important role in diplomacy. Some of our future’s biggest challenges—like climate change—can’t be contained within borders, which means that nations around the world need to get on the same page. Meanwhile, science itself can be used as an olive branch: Even when two countries' political leaders aren’t on good terms, their scientists can exchange ideas, paving the way for more communication down the road. It happened during the Cold War and more recently before U.S.-Cuba relations normalized. So how should science be used in diplomacy?

Join us in Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, for a happy hour event at the Arizona State University Washington Center with Frances Colón, deputy science and technology adviser to the secretary of state, and Marga Gual Soler, project director at the Center for Science Diplomacy and assistant research professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. While you enjoy drinks and snacks, Slate staff writer Joshua Keating will discuss science as a platform for diplomacy with Colón and Soler.


To attend, please RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share. You may RSVP for yourself and up to one guest, and please include your guest’s name in your response. Unfortunately, only a limited number of seats are available.

Future Tense regularly hosts happy hours and other evening events—like our "My Favorite Movie" series, in which leaders in technology and science host a screening of their favorite film with tech and science themes. So subscribe to our newsletter below and follow us on Twitter to learn about our all our upcoming events.

Oct. 7 2015 11:59 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: How to Look Hot on Mars

Hi Slate-liens,

In the past week, Future Tense explored survival in space, the latest cybersecurity developments, and more. Join us, won’t you?


The Martian may be pure hokum, but according to Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, if you look at  real science of the movie, it’s not entirely implausible hokum. In fact, as Rachel Gross wrote, the filmpractically worships science, but it also maintains its sense of wonder. What did I think? [redacted]loved every minute of it.

Maybe we still had space on the brain, because we also checked in with the designers who are trying to make spacesuits sexier. If we’re headed in that direction, though, we may want to rethink the often-sexist language of spaceflight.

Meanwhile, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: National Cyber Security Awareness Month! As part of the festivities, there was a scary new attack on Microsoft Outlook’s Web application. Ross Schulman discussed three laws that Congress should change to let cybersecurity researchers do their jobs. In the U.K., meanwhile, they’re attempting to woo a new generation of hackers with a buggy, terrible game. Good luck with that, folks.

Here are a few other stories that were really having a moment this week:

  • Digital rights: Rebecca Wexler argues that defendants should have the right to inspect code used to convict them.
  • Opting outVerizon is sharing private, identifying information about its subscribers with advertisers. We explained how you can opt out.
  • Butt dialsOur phones may be smarter than ever, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t calling 911 from our pockets.
  • Smart citiesStreetlamps of the future may be outfitted with sensors, cameras, and more. Does everything have to be connected to the Internet?

Upcoming Future Tense events:

En route to the Red Planet,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Oct. 6 2015 2:54 PM

Court Strikes Down Data-Transfer Pact That Lets Tech Companies Move European User Data

On Tuesday, the highest court in the European Union ended a data-transfer agreement known as the "Safe Harbor" pact after 15 years of use.

The agreement allowed tech companies to move user data from European to United States data centers if the companies offered certain privacy settings and met other minimum requirements. Eliminating the pact is a win for privacy advocates, who criticized it for potentially exposing EU user data to U.S. surveillance. But it could have ramifications for the tech industry, since companies will now have to rely on data centers that are physically in the EU or find other legal justifications to allow data to flow to the United States.


The Wall Street Journal estimates that roughly 4,500 companies, from tiny startups to tech giants, were invoking the pact in their daily operations. Some, like Microsoft and Facebook, have backup plans, but small companies with limited resources may struggle to implement new strategies. The worst-case scenario would be that European customers can't use certain U.S. services, leading to problems for international trade.

Brian Hengesbaugh, a privacy lawyer with Baker & McKenzie in Chicago who worked on the original pact, told the New York Times, “We can’t assume that anything is now safe. ... The ruling is so sweepingly broad that any mechanism used to transfer data from Europe could be under threat.”

The decision fits into broader discussion about how to defend users' privacy rights at the largest scale, though. "Today’s Judgment puts people’s fundamental right to privacy before profit," Renata Avila, the global campaign manager of the World Wide Web Foundation, said in a statement. "We hope that this EU ruling will also inspire countries around the world to review their data protection and exchange policies, and enhance the protection of their citizens."

Oct. 6 2015 2:44 PM

Here’s How To Opt Out of Verizon’s Scary New Privacy Violation

This October just got a little more chilling. On Tuesday, ProPublica’s Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson called attention to an announcement that Verizon had changed its privacy policy, allowing it to share personally identifying information about its subscribers with AOL’s ad network. In the wake of this change, if you’re a Verizon customer, your phone isn’t just tracking information “such as gender, age range, and interests”—it’s also using that information to help people sell you things.

Maddeningly, this intrusive policy shift requires that users actively opt out if they don’t want to be directly monitored. As Angwin notes on Twitter, you can exempt yourself from the initiative here (she and Larson point out that you can also call 866-211-0874), though you’ll still have to manually log into your account or otherwise wrestle with Verizon customer service.


This creepy corporate synergy comes on the heels of Verizon’s $4.4 billion purchase of AOL earlier this year. In its initial Privacy Notice, Verizon coyly suggests that this isn’t that big of a deal. One sentence reads, “We do not share information that identifies you personally as part of these programs other than with vendors and partners who do work for us.” That’s an awfully big “other than.” Per ProPublica, “AOL’s network is on 40 percent of websites,” which should make for quite a few “vendors and partners.”

Given the season, this news has an appropriately haunting character: It appears to be connected to controversial “zombie cookies” that relied on undeletable information buried in Verizon phones and tablets to track customers’ browsing habits, even if the user deleted the cookie. Though the company responsible for those cookies supposedly killed off the program after protests, the technology that empowered it seems to have risen once again. Privacy advocates should have gone for a shot to the head the first time around. When you’re dealing with zombies, it’s the only way to be sure.

Oct. 6 2015 12:28 PM

Convicted by Code

Secret code is everywhere—in elevators, airplanes, medical devices. By refusing to publish the source code for software, companies make it impossible for third parties to inspect, even when that code has enormous effects on society and policy. Secret code risks security flaws that leave us vulnerable to hacks and data leaks. It can threaten privacy by gathering information about us without our knowledge. It may interfere with equal treatment under law if the government relies on it to determine our eligibility for benefits or whether to put us on a no-fly list. And secret code enables cheaters and hides mistakes, as with Volkswagen: The company admitted recently that it used covert software to cheat emissions tests for 11 million diesel cars spewing smog at 40 times the legal limit.

But as shocking as Volkswagen’s fraud may be, it only heralds more of its kind. It’s time to address one of the most urgent if overlooked tech transparency issues—secret code in the criminal justice system. Today, closed, proprietary software can put you in prison or even on death row. And in most U.S. jurisdictions you still wouldn’t have the right to inspect it. In short, prosecutors have a Volkswagen problem.


Take California. Defendant Martell Chubbs currently faces murder charges for a 1977 cold case in which the only evidence against him is a DNA match by a proprietary computer program. Chubbs, who ran a small home-repair business at the time of his arrest, asked to inspect the software’s source code in order to challenge the accuracy of its results. Chubbs sought to determine whether the code properly implements established scientific procedures for DNA matching and if it operates the way its manufacturer claims. But the manufacturer argued that the defense attorney might steal or duplicate the code and cause the company to lose money. The court denied Chubbs’ request, leaving him free to examine the state’s expert witness but not the tool that the witness relied on. Courts in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere have made similar rulings.

We need to trust new technologies to help us find and convict criminals but also to exonerate the innocent. Proprietary software interferes with that trust in a growing number of investigative and forensic devices, from DNA testing to facial recognition software to algorithms that tell police where to look for future crimes. Inspecting the software isn’t just good for defendants, though—disclosing code to defense experts helped the New Jersey Supreme Court confirm the scientific reliability of a breathalyzer.

Short-circuiting defendants’ ability to cross-examine forensic evidence is not only unjust—it paves the way for bad science. Experts have described cross-examination as “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” But recent revelations exposed an epidemic of bad science undermining criminal justice. Studies have disputed the scientific validity of pattern matching in bite marks, arson, hair and fiber, shaken baby syndrome diagnoses, ballistics, dog-scent lineups, blood spatter evidence, and fingerprint matching. Massachusetts is struggling to handle the fallout from a crime laboratory technician’s forgery of results that tainted evidence in tens of thousands of criminal cases. And the Innocence Project reports that bad forensic science contributed to the wrongful convictions of 47 percent of exonerees. The National Academy of Sciences has blamed the crisis in part on a lack of peer review in forensic disciplines.

Nor is software immune. Coding errors have been found to alter DNA likelihood ratios by a factor of 10, causing prosecutors in Australia to replace 24 expert witness statements in criminal cases. When defense experts identified a bug in breathalyzer software, the Minnesota Supreme Court barred the affected test from evidence in all future trials. Three of the state’s highest justices argued to admit evidence of additional alleged code defects so that defendants could challenge the credibility of future tests.

Cross-examination can help to protect against error—and even fraud—in forensic science and tech. But for that “legal engine” to work, defendants need to know the bases of state claims. Indeed, when federal district Judge Jed S. Rakoff of Manhattan resigned in protest from President Obama’s commission on forensic sciences, he warned that if defendants lack access to information for cross-examination, forensic testimony is “nothing more than trial by ambush.”

Rakoff’s warning is particularly relevant for software in forensic devices. Because eliminating errors from code is so hard, experts have endorsed openness to public scrutiny as the surest way to keep software secure. Similarly, requiring the government to rely exclusively on open-source forensic tools would crowd-source cross-examination of forensic device software. Forensic device manufacturers, which sell exclusively to government crime laboratories, may lack incentives to conduct the obsessive quality testing required.

To be sure, government regulators currently conduct independent validation tests for at least some digital forensic tools. But even regulators may be unable to audit the code in the devices they test, instead merely evaluating how these technologies perform in controlled laboratory environments. Such “black box” testing wasn’t enough for the Environmental Protection Agency to catch Volkswagen’s fraud, and it won’t be enough to guarantee the quality of digital forensic technologies, either.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that making criminal trials transparent helps to safeguard public trust in their fairness and legitimacy. Secrecy about what’s under the hood of digital forensic devices casts doubt on this process. Criminal defendants facing incarceration or death should have a right to inspect the secret code in the devices used to convict them.

Oct. 6 2015 10:46 AM

Twitter’s New “Moments” Feature Tries to Help You Make Sense of Twitter

For years Twitter has been the world's best tool for following live events as they unfold—provided you know where and how to look. But for the uninitiated, the social network has had a reputation for being frustrating or even alienating.

Finally, after months of rumors that Twitter was working on a "Project Lightning" curation feature, the company announced it Tuesday. And it's called Moments, because of course it is.


Moments, which is live now, is debuting on the second day of co-founder Jack Dorsey's return to Twitter as CEO. The timing reflects the substantial evolution Twitter needs as a company. If Moments is successful, it just might be the thing that finally gets Twitter growing again. But it doesn't, it will be in good company.

Moments appears as a little lightning icon on Twitter's mobile app and website between the tabs labeled "notifications" and "messages." Tap it and you'll load a screen that looks more like a snazzy mobile news site than a social network. There Twitter has compiled a selection of the most noteworthy stories and topics that people are discussing on the platform at any given time. Click on one, and you'll pull up a page that looks different from any other Twitter has offered. It is, as you might expect, a series of tweets handpicked by Twitter "curators" to tell the story in question—context and all. But you're not just seeing a screen full of tweets. Instead, each tweet appears as a full screen photo or video, with the text of the tweet itself functioning like a caption.

Importantly, the stories are available whether or not you're a Twitter user. Even if you aren't logged in, you can still find them just by visiting the Twitter homepage, where they'll replace the algorithmically selected tweets that Twitter debuted on it's logged-out homepage earlier this year.

Twitter's Moments are meant to be representative of the conversation happening around an issue, but they can also stand as content in their own right, and you can tweet, retweet, or favorite them. Share a link to a Moment, and it will appear in your followers' timelines with a preview card, the way any other story link would. The implication is that the Moments tab will become a sort of alternate universe Twitter, because when someone shares a Moment, clicking it will take you to the other tab. It's worth noting that historically, features like this that are only available on a separate tab have struggled to catch on with Twitter's users.

For now, most of the stories are being curated by a "very, very small" team of Twitter employees and product managers, Twitter product manager Madhu Muthukumar told us. But Twitter is also partnering with publications that will be able to curate their own Moments, share them on Twitter, and embed them on their own websites. Launch partners include the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Major League Baseball, and you can see how Moments could eventually become a battleground for publishers who want their version of a particular story to surface prominently in the tab.

If all works as Twitter hopes, Moments will not only be a way into the site for new users, but will also be a way for experienced users to get caught up on a story that's been unfolding on the site. (Moments even has a "You're all caught up" message when you've viewed all of your newly available stories.) You'll also have the option to "follow" a story once you've looked at it in the Moments tab. For instance, if you follow a story about the South Carolina floods, Twitter will automatically drop new tweets from that story into your timeline as it develops. Once the story is over, you won't have to unfollow it—you'll just stop seeing those tweets.

The "Moments" feature is Twitter's attempt to address two of its biggest problems at once. One is that the site is always awash in content but lacks context. At any given time, the people you follow are having conversations about all different topics, most of which began before you logged in. You end up having to spend time figuring out what they're even talking about before you can grasp the substance of what they're saying.

The second problem Moments is trying to solve is that it's often hard to figure out whom to follow on Twitter. That's especially true for users who are new to the site, but even Twitter pros struggle to know where to turn when they're trying to get up to speed on a new topic or breaking news event. Take the floods as an example—you might have spent years building up a list of people to follow during breaking news events, and you might even follow some weather experts. But you're unlikely to follow the very people who happen to be on the ground in South Carolina this week. And then even if you do, their tweets could still be overshadowed by the sheer volume of other people you follow talking about unrelated things.

The idea of mining Twitter and aggregating the best tweets about a given story or topic is not new. It's been done for years by the likes of BuzzFeed and Mashable. But it hasn't been done by Twitter itself before, which always seemed a little bit odd. Now with the rise of services like Facebook Notes and Apple News—where content is increasingly being presented in a controlled ecosystem—it's gone from an oversight to a problem for Twitter. Moments is a step in the right direction. But it might take a few more steps to change the minds of all those people who tried Twitter in the past, found it confusing, and gave up.

Oct. 6 2015 10:22 AM

The Real Science Behind The Martian  

As a card-carrying space nerd and NASA’s chief scientist, I love space movies, from Star Trek to Star Wars to my all-time favorite—The Dish, an Australian comedy that celebrates that first moment when Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of our moon. Up until now, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit my favorite Mars movie has been John Carter. But that now has been superseded by The Martian.

The Martian, set in the 2030s, covers the travails of the third human mission to Mars. Aided by NASA scientists, the film gets much right—from technologies NASA is developing now, to accurate Mars geography.


You may be wondering how realistic The Martian is. In fact, President Obama has stated a goal of getting humans in the Mars vicinity in the 2030s, and NASA is working hard to make this happen. Our journey to Mars has already begun, and we have put our most brilliant minds to work on each of its three main phases.

The first is what we call the Earth-reliant phase: technology development and human health risk reduction that we work on every day on the International Space Station. The one-year mission aboard the station right now, with astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, is a big part of this. We need more data on the long-term effects of microgravity on human health, and we will use the next several years on the ISS to develop countermeasures to health effects like bone density loss and muscle wasting. Mars missions will require up to three years in reduced gravity, so we need to make sure astronauts can not only survive but thrive, as they move outward to explore this new world.

The second phase of our journey to Mars takes place in what we call the proving ground in the early 2020s. We are preparing to send humans beyond low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the moon for the first time in decades using our new rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion capsule. In this proving ground out near the moon, we will test systems needed for Mars missions, like advanced life support systems and advanced propulsion, while still being able to return to Earth in days, rather than the 7–8 months it takes to get back from Mars. In the meantime, we will continue to explore Mars with robotic spacecrafts like the Curiosity rover, making measurements such as characterizing the radiation environment to ensure humans can safely explore the Martian surface. Also in the 2020s we will be testing advanced entry, decent, and landing—or EDL—systems at Mars that we will need to land human exploration payloads much larger than those we’ve landed with robotic explorers.

The third phase of our journey to Mars will look much like the Ares missions of The Martian. An international team of astronauts will orbit Mars, maybe visit the Martian moons, and eventually explore the surface of the red planet. We may be able to use the water we have discovered on Mars for rocket fuel and to help humans survive; that will allow us to live and work on Mars, conducting scientific research on the surface. Our astronauts will wear advanced space suits that give them increased mobility, bringing the intuitive thinking and flexibility to Mars exploration that only humans can. And then we will bring those astronauts safely home. As we visit Mars multiple times, we will build up infrastructure on the surface to expand the capabilities and reach of humans on Mars.

We can make this happen in an affordable way by joining forces with our international partners. In fact, 16 space agencies from around the world are already working together on this. We also will partner with the commercial sector in new and innovative ways and bring the public along through citizen engagement projects like technology challenges and prizes. The Martian may be fiction, but at NASA we are working to make it a reality.

One quibble I have with the movie is that it neglects to address the ‘Why Mars?’ question. This is the most important question behind everything NASA does. Part of why we explore is human nature—showing we can push ever outward toward the next frontier, developing new technologies and reaping the economic rewards as we do so. But as a planetary scientist and a lover of another science-fiction film, Contact, I also want humans to go to Mars  to address the fundamental question, “Are we alone?” Mars is the most likely place where life evolved beyond Earth, with water stable on the surface for more than a billion years. Those first missions to Mars (from which we will bring everyone home!) will have astrobiologists and geologists from around the world searching for evidence that life evolved on Mars and what the implications of that life are for life here on Earth.

The Dish celebrates one of humankind’s greatest achievements. The Martian gets us ready for the next one that NASA is working hard to realize—the first humans to walk on the surface of another planet and help us to find life beyond Earth.