If you’ve ever been curious about science education in the Midwest, you only need to look to Northwest Jr High in Coralville, IA. When I was in Mr Lewis’ 7th grade Earth Science class, in the last week before winter break, they took every science class every period to the auditorium. Every day, they handed out worksheets and we turned them in at the end of class. We watched Armageddon, and answered worksheet questions about the science in the movie. For a week.
Today I’ll be discussing Armageddon, from Michael Bay’s pre-Transformers years. Specifically, I want to discuss one aspect of the trend of movie smart people who do and say really dumb things. In the real world, NASA is a group of some of the smartest and most driven people in the world. They’re the organization that created the math to put a man on the moon, for Christ’s sake. But in this movie, they agree without a fight that 8 oil rig workers are better suited to go to space than 8 astronauts. That’s insane. Start to finish, NASA’s plan to save the world from fiery explosive asteroid death is stupid and dumb and all of the other synonyms for not smart in your thesaurus.
Our first real “NASA moment” is when Billy Bob Thornton literally tells his staff that he wants every idea on how to stop this asteroid. He then proceeds to yell at the one guy who gives him an idea on camera. And I’ll admit, it was a stupid idea. Something about a giant solar sail and wind and I don’t care it was stupid. And Billy Bob Thornton yells at the entire staff saying “it’s time to get serious!” Is it? Is it time to get serious? Because 15 seconds ago in screen time you asked for every idea. A direct quote is “I don’t care if you wrote it on a pizza box.” This also leads to the question: “how stupid were all of the other ideas if your final decision falls to ‘land two rockets on the asteroid, drill a hole in that asteroid, then drop nukes in the hole.”
The real meat of the stupidity comes when they start asking around for the best driller in the world. I was talking to my friend Cody the other day about this rampant 80s and 90s movie premise of the best (insert blue collar job) in the world. You have Dalton from Roadhouse, the best bouncer in the world. You have Michael Roark, the best Emergency Management guy (Volcano). And of course, you have Harry, the best oil rig driller on the planet.
The first problem with this plan is that they had to ask. NASA had stolen plans for a super advanced new drilling rig from the patent office, plans Harry created. But they still had to ask around to find out who the best drilling man was? Use the tools already at your disposal, NASA. The next problem is when Harry shows up. He tells them that they’ve put the rig together incorrectly, then tells them he needs his own crew up there instead of the astronauts who have been training for 8 months for a similar mission on top of the years they’ve already been training to be astronauts. That is a level of insanity I’m not really prepared for. Harry spends the entire movie telling us that these “roughnecks” aren’t good enough to marry his daughter, but they’re good enough to learn how to be astronauts in less than two weeks?
That’s the next major problem. NASA agrees to let these oil men learn to be astronauts on the most important mission in the history of humanity rather than sending trained astronauts, pretty much entirely on Harry’s word that drilling is an art and a science, and he won’t go without them. First, you know who’s pretty good at science? NASA. Second, the way this should have gone down is pretty simple. You let the oil guys train. Then you send your astronauts anyway. If you absolutely need Harry, you put him on one shuttle and tell him his crew are all on the other shuttle. It’s not like the government has never lied before, and this is literally a world saving mission. And we know they’re willing to lie, because Harry says “all we have to do is drill, right? No space walking or astronaut stuff?” And Billy Bob agrees that all they’ll have to do is drill, despite the fact that they’ll need to go to the space station to refuel, drive astronaut trucks on a giant asteroid hurtling through space, then walk on that very same giant asteroid hurtling through space. So they could have easily lied and done the mission in an easier, safer, less “Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck saving the world with Aerosmith” kind of way. But no, they listen to Harry’s demands and send people who literally fail every NASA entrance test. On that note, Billy Bob Thornton says “All I need to know is, can they physically make the trip into space?” So why did they waste time with the psych eval? Sure, it made for entertaining movie time, but it probably wasted 8 hours of valuable training time of the 12 days they had to learn to be fucking astronauts.
I have a big problem with Harry’s assertion that the men needed a break less than 24 hours before the mission. I totally get that the stress was difficult and the guys were struggling. But you mean to tell me that these big strong oil men who go out to sea for months at a time couldn’t handle 12 hard days of training? But whatever, the men need their break, and they get their break. But then NASA doesn’t send anyone with them for guard duty? No way. Mission control protested the break (harder than they protested sending the oil men in the first place, actually), and rightfully so. They asked what happened if they started talking about the mission, or if someone got hurt. There were massive security and mission critical concerns involved with these men leaving the premises, and they let them go anyway without any form of security detail. That’s just bad business, and it goes wrong because of course it does. Half the crew ends up in jail for getting into a brawl in a strip club, which is exactly the kind of thing they should have expected would happen. At least two of these men ran away when the FBI went to pick them up, one was getting a tattoo and has clearly been arrested before, one was skeezing on a married woman in a bar. These men are not stable, and should never have been let go without some form of supervision.
When it gets to the mission itself, I really only had a few things I noticed. Mostly because this is a two and a half hour long movie and I got kind of drunk by the end. This is because I am a professional, and I will thank you to respect my process.
The first problem I had with the mission came during the launch. After (a pretty racist depiction of) Shanghai gets hit by a small meteorite, NASA is forced to tell the rest of the world about their impending destruction. But they claim it’s an international operation using the best minds from Russia, China, and the United States. First of all, there are plenty of smart people in places other than those three countries. Second, there is no indication that this is true except for a visit to the international space station to refuel with help from a cosmonaut. Otherwise, there is no international cooperation. The not white person in more than one scene in the entire movie is Michael Clark Duncan, and if they’d actually coordinated with China there would have been at least one Chinese astronaut or scientist somehow involved. There’s also some serious nationalistic hubris involved here. Billy Bob Thornton says “there’s only seven telescopes in the world that can see this thing, we control six of them.” Bullshit. The first person to see the asteroid was some dude at his house. Pretty sure plenty of other countries would have seen this, and by the time Harry got to the asteroid there would be two other teams up there from China and Space X.
The next problem is pretty minor, but I’m going to mention it anyway because that’s just who I am as a person. When the shuttles dock at the international space station, Houston says “switching on personnel locators.” That sounds like a fake thing, and it also sounds like something that should always have been on. If you’re going to have something that stupid, there’s no reason to not have it on all of the time.
The next, and probably most egregious problem with the mission is their secondary protocol. At a certain point, drilling is behind schedule. So NASA’s response is to detonate the nuclear warhead early, knowing that it won’t actually do the trick and split the asteroid in half. My question is . . . why? You still have time to drill further down. Even if they don’t get all the way down, let the men drill as deep as they can before just detonating the warhead on the surface. In what world would you think it’s a better idea not spend your time getting as close to the target as possible, and instead blow the warhead early and in the entirely wrong position, also sacrificing your entire team? Foolishness.
Start to finish, NASA bumbled through their mission and nearly destroyed the world. I get that my way of saving the Earth wouldn’t have made for a very engaging summer blockbuster, but it certainly would have been safer. It also might have resulted in my class actually studying some science in 7th grade. Probably not though, since in 8th grade we watched Volcano. If Armageddon hadn’t come along, we’d probably have watched Twister or something. And the Armageddon soundtrack was a thousand times better than Twister.
That’s it for now gang, love and kisses!
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