"I was on my way back from the cafeteria and our public affairs officer came up to me and asked if I had time to talk to Ridley Scott," says Dr. Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA. "I said I could probably clear my schedule."
The film director who kicked-off the Alien franchise was calling the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to discuss his big-budget science-fiction film The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir. The tale follows Astronaut Mark Watney, who becomes stranded on Mars after being knocked out during a freak dust storm and accidentally left for dead by his colleagues. His communication systems knocked out and with five years to wait before the next planned NASA expedition, Watney has to find a way to, in his words, "science the shit" out of the situation by terraforming the red planet before his 39-day food supply runs out.
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It was the desire to represent Watney's plight and exploration of Mars in the most accurate light that had lead Scott to cold-call NASA Headquarters and ask to fact-check his film with someone possessing a deep knowledge of planetary science. It's a move that likely wouldn't work for the standard indie filmmaker, but your chances of being taken seriously increase dramatically if the movie stars Academy Award–winner Matt Damon.
"Science Fiction is an important part of our culture and pursuits. We need that dream of what the future could bring to drive us," says Dr. Green about the incentive for assisting Scott and his production crew in the technical planning of the film. He read the book the weekend after receiving the call and discovered that, though Weir had researched the best-selling novel almost exclusively using data he found on Google, much of it was accurate.
The beginnings of The Martian are humble. Uploaded to the Internet as a serial for free by Weir, the son of a particle physicist, he was convinced by fans to sell the complete novel through Amazon for 99 cents. Its popularity eventually led to Crown Publishing buying the print rights in 2013. Though editors found a few small issues with the storytelling, what was clear was the fact-checking done on the science aspect of the tale was impeccable.
"I didn't know anyone in aerospace at the time I wrote this. I didn't know anyone at JPL or NASA. I was just a dork writing a story," Weir says, laughing. He also describes an affinity for sci-fi films and books, his favorites being Cosmos by Carl Sagan and an essay collection by Mary Roach called Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
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There is only one element in the movie that rings completely false in everyone's opinion: the intense dust storm that blows away a large antenna, which impales Watney. Believing him to be dead, the crew departs Mars without him, kicking off the drama. According to Dr. Green, the atmosphere is too thin to create wind gusts able to toss the team's communications equipment around like a toothpick. "We've never seen one that powerful," Dr. Green assures.
Here's what they get right:
From that moment on, though, most of the science aligns closely with what NASA is predicting for the time that The Martian takes place, in the late 2030s. To allow the most realistic portrayal of the habitat as possible, Dr. Green arranged for Scott's production designer Arthur Max to visit both the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "I had a whole day with him walking around and showing him all the designs and mock-ups that we have for the Habs," Dr. Green says. "He wanted to know everything: where the microwave was, where they slept, and he was just taking pictures the whole time. He must have taken a few thousand pictures."
In terms of the vehicles, Hermes was made to reflect the current concepts that NASA is working on for their own spacecrafts destined for Mars. There was similar attention to detail paid to the rovers that Watney is left to cruise around on the surface with, except that NASA's model has a round front screen, while Scott's has a square window. Dr. Green says, "We have several large prototypes already made up." There is even a crowd-pleasing cameo appearance by the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner that Scott had re-created almost identically.
The suits were given a more of a democratic approach, as Scott did not believe the classic Apollo edition that the space program uses now to be the right look. The license taken was not too objectionable as NASA is in the midst of designing a new suit that will be used on any future Mars mission. Like Watney's in the movie, the suits will likely be smaller, slimmer, and lighter so that astronauts can go on more long-distance expeditions.
There is one classic item featured throughout The Martian that has been a standby for NASA missions for decades. Duct tape. In the movie Watney logs an entry, "Yes, of course duct tape works in a near vacuum. Duct tape works everywhere. It is magic and should be worshipped." The iconic silver tape has bailed astronauts out of a pinch before. In 1972 the crew of Apollo 17 lost the fender off their moonbuggy, allowing space dust to kick up into the cockpit, and they fixed the problem with duct tape. Dr. Green laughs, "It's a universal tool, and one of the great inventions."
The most shocking element of the movie may be the growing of crops on the Red Planet. In order to survive beyond his limited amount of rations, Watney is presented with the problem of growing his own food. He ends up giving up a good amount of his living space in the Hab to fertilize the soil, yes, using his own feces, and planting potatoes to grow more potatoes. It's a great plot line for drama and comedy, but Green says they are working on plans to terraform Mars using less extreme measures. "Our rover Curiosity is roaming around now and has found nitrates, which will be important for the making of fertilizer. Through new studies we've discovered that there is even more humidity in the atmosphere than we originally imagined. So the more research we do, the more we realize that sustaining life on Mars may be even easier than we previously thought."
In the end, The Martian is meant to entertain, but there is hope from NASA that the movie will help keep the world looking up at the stars. As Dr. Green says, though, "Check your science at the door and just enjoy it."