When NASA Met Michael Bay, or, How Nic Cage Might Lasso an Asteroid

In a world ... where an astronaut captures a space-rock ...
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Here's how things, apparently, will go: NASA will send two of its astronauts into space with the help of the Orion spacecraft and, of course, a rocket. The astronauts will travel in space for nine days, using the moon's gravity to pick up speed for the trip. The astronauts will approach an asteroid that has been captured by a robotic spacecraft. They will use an enormous ladder to travel between the captured asteroid and their own spacecraft. They will walk onto the asteroid, using hundreds of rings affixed to the space-rock's surface, to navigate its bumpy terrain. They will collect samples of the asteroid. They will bring those samples back to Earth. Earth will cheer. 

If that all sounds like a movie ... it is. Sort of. Only the producer of this particular motion picture will be a government agency. And the plot in question -- coming to a theater near you in 2021 -- won't just be a melodrama of the Armageddon or Deep Impact variety; it will also be a NASA mission. NASA's "Asteroid Redirect Mission," to be precise.

The video above doesn't reveal, to be clear, NASA's official strategy when it comes to capturing an asteroid: That strategy is still up for review, at technical workshops and elsewhere. The let's-lasso-an-asteroid plan is, NASA points out, a "notional concept." What the video does reveal, however, is NASA's strategy when it comes to capturing attention. NASA (no doubt inspired, at least in part, by Hollywood) has doubled down on the human drama of its upcoming plans for space exploration. 

It is taking one of the lessons of Curiosity -- that a single, high-drama, viral video could do a lot to make people care about a six-wheeled robot whose official name is the Mars Science Laboratory -- and applying it to future missions. The trailer above might as well have been scored by Hans Zimmer. It might as well have been directed by Michael Bay. It might as well star a puffy-suited Nic Cage. [Note to NASA: Please involve Nic Cage in your upcoming asteroid mission.] It is entertainment, based on a true story, brought to you by NASA.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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