If you have any astronomy in your stories -- if you mention space, if you display a telescope, even if you present the Moon only once -- please, for the love of Galileo, get an astronomy consultant. There is nothing that so turns professional and amateur astronomers off to your stories than when you show the wrong Moon phase for the time of night, a sunrise that's really a sunset in reverse, or a cheap telescope that stands-in for a great telescope. It's distracting, it's unnecessary, and it's so easily fixed.
My plea is negatively inspired by the Ben Mezrich "non-fiction" book, Sex on the Moon. Mezrich chronicles the life of Thad Roberts who orchestrated the theft of 101.5 ounces of lunar material from a NASA vault at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). I can forgive his tepid retelling of the climactic love-making scene on top of Moon dust, but not his frequent scientific inaccuracies and blatant mathematical errors that ruined the story.
Errors erupted on page 35 when Roberts is first briefed at JSC by an unnamed astronaut. Dressed in his blue NASA flight suit the astronaut gives an inaccurate history of space travel. The astronaut describes the Gemini 4 mission as, "... the first extravehicular space walk in human history." Not true. That honor goes to Alexey Leonov who performed his space walk from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft before Gemini 4.
Roberts had a playful argument with a colleague about which of them would be the first on Mars. In the end, he offers a flirting compromise that, "Even the first Apollo capsules had room for two" (p. 82). Does he mean the Lunar Landers? Each Apollo capsule carried three passengers.
Mezrich is out in space when it comes to his grasp of distances and velocities. During one of Roberts's day dreaming moments, "It was him in the astronaut suit, beginning a space walk a few hundred thousand miles above the Earth, working his way toward the International Space Station..." (p. 142). Was Roberts, then a NASA co-op, really unaware that the ISS is only a few hundred miles above the Earth?
Mezrich also tries to impress us with the velocity of things hitting the Moon as, "somewhere between ten thousand and eight thousand kilometers per hour" (p. 188). Way too slow. In 2006, astronomers videotaped an asteroid hitting the Moon at over 137,000 kilometers per hour. Now that's impressive!
What's worse is that these errors survived the editing process from Random House publishing. Mezrich admits in the author's notes that some of his dialogue is re-created -- based on recollections and what might reasonably have been said. But no one with half a scientific brain, let alone someone studying and working in the field would make these mistakes. There are so many false facts that it makes me wonder what else was made up.
Finally in the heist, Roberts accidentally steals a Martian meteorite, the famous ALH 84001. This is the rock that created a buzz when geologists thought they found evidence of fossilized bacteria inside it. Scientists are currently divided on the issue with most believing it not a fossil, but a natural formation. Mezrich states in several places that this rock proved that there had once been life on Mars. If this was so thoroughly proven, Mezrich should write a book about that.
Ultimately, Sex on the Moon is a work of fiction whose scientific elements only expose the writer. The book is about what Mezrich thinks it might be like to be Thad Roberts if he possessed Mezrich's lack of astronomy, physics, or history knowledge.
Word on the Earth is that Sex on the Moon will be made into a movie. If this movie does not correct the mistakes of the book, so help me Hubble, I will call for a general boycott. If you're going to write about astronauts in training, and put it on the big screen, you better get it right.
Before movies with any astronomy hit the theaters -- writers, editors, directors, producers -- please hire an astronomer to make sure everything is correct. Although Neil DeGrasse Tyson may be too pricey for your fact-checking budget, I'm available and would work for the pure satisfaction of getting it right.
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