“…Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man.”

I had the very great pleasure of seeing, “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon for the second time this past weekend. As a space scientist and entertainer, there are so many pieces of excellent material in the film. One of my very favorite was the remark, “Houston, be advised: Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man.” Unless you are a space enthusiast, you probably didn’t catch it, or its meaning.

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Apollo 12 and 13 origins

The term, “steely-eyed missile man,” has its roots in the Apollo 12 mission. During launch, the Apollo 12 command module is struck by lightning, and the electrical systems go haywire. The Apollo 12 capsule is running on battery, which lasts a maximum of two hours, and the mission is within seconds of being aborted. Along comes the original steely-eyed missile man, John Aaron, a flight controller. John remembers seeing the same set of conditions during a test a year prior, and tells the Apollo 12 crew to flip the “SCE to AUX, ” switch. While not designed for this purpose, the switch works, the mission was saved, and Alan Bean and company walk on the Moon. There is video here: Steely Eyed Missile Man origins

During Apollo 13, a dire set of challenges face the crew of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. Near the end of the movie, the last challenge is solved by Ken Mattingly, who was bumped from the original crew. Jim Lovell calls down to Mission Control and tells Ken that he is, “a steely-eyed missile man.”

The highest compliment

Calling someone a, “steely-eyed missile man,” has evolved to become the very highest compliment that can be paid to a member of the space community. It is reserved for those who have solved extremely difficult problems in the most challenging situations. So when Rich Purnell figures out, late in, “The Martian,” how to get Mark Watney home from Mars a couple hundred days earlier, and before his food runs out, he continues the NASA legend of becoming, “a steely-eyed missile man.”

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