During preproduction for Ridley Scott's 2015 film The Martian, the director ran into an issue: He and his production designer, Arthur Max, realized they had no idea what a human outpost on Mars would actually look like. So Scott made a call to NASA.
“I had just come back from the cafeteria when I was asked if I could speak with Ridley," recalls Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, who counts Scott's Alien among his favorite films. “I said that I could probably clear my schedule." That afternoon, Green spent roughly an hour on the phone with Scott, discussing things like how artificial gravity works in a spaceship, what a radioisotopic power system looks like, and how ion engines create thrust.
Green was even able to arrange a field trip for Max to the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where he got a rare look at NASA's prototypes for its Mars habitats and rovers — items only a handful of “civilians" had ever seen. “He must have taken a couple thousand pictures," says Green.
The result was one of the most realistic depictions of a mission to the Red Planet ever constructed, full of ergonomic space suits, massive spaceships, and Mars living pods. It was a laborious undertaking — on all sides. For four months during The Martian's production, Green received 30 to 50 questions a week from the crew, with concerns about everything from radiation shielding to the Pathfinder communications system. He dutifully responded. Still, he wasn't able to catch everything. “There is a scene where Matt Damon's character watches the sun go down on Mars," says Green. “They made it red, but sunsets there are blue [because of fine dust in the air]. I wish I had told them about that."
You could argue that the head of a $1.6 billion division has better things to do than answer endless questions from a movie studio, but NASA's investment in The Martian paid off: In addition to seven Oscar nominations, the film generated priceless publicity for the space program, something the agency believes is crucial to maintaining public interest in its missions, which are sometimes hard to explain or even see. After the movie was completed, Damon even visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory facility in California for a press event alongside real-life astronaut Drew Feustel and other NASA employees.
“It was an exciting opportunity to start conversations about our work," says Green.
As you may have noticed, Hollywood has been bingeing on space movies as of late: Gravity, Hidden Figures, and Passengers, among others. February saw the release of The Space Between Us, about a boy born on Mars, and in March, Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson starred in Daniel Espinosa's Life, a sci-fi thriller about a rogue martian life-form. In many of these cases, NASA offered expertise and personnel, even shooting locations, to help bring these films to life. The goal, simply, is to promote the space agency and its next big-picture mission: a manned flight to Mars.
“I wouldn't consider what we do propaganda," says Bert Ulrich, NASA's multimedia liaison for film. “But we are looking to inspire kids to look to the stars and other planets."
The U.S. government has a long history of leveraging Hollywood for publicity purposes — Top Gun, for example, was given free rein to use Navy aircraft carriers and fighter jets — but no agency has become so intertwined with Hollywood as NASA. Without Cold War competition to justify its $19 billion annual budget, the space agency has had to stoke the public's fascination (and support) for its missions with increasingly savvy PR gambits: interviews with astronauts from space, kid-friendly science experiments from the International Space Station, and, yes, material support for big-budget thrillers.
As the liaison between NASA and filmmakers, Ulrich has worked on dozens of films, including The Avengers, Hidden Figures, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. During the filming of Tomorrowland at the Kennedy Space Center, Ulrich watched the launch of the Mars maven probe alongside Hugh Laurie and George Clooney, who star in the sci-fi flick. He's currently waiting to see, for approval, a revised script for La La Land director Damien Chazelle's First Man, with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. “This position didn't exist when I started in 1990," he says.
The first big-budget film that NASA worked on was Ron Howard's Apollo 13, in 1995, about the near-disastrous moon shot. At first the agency was skeptical of how the dramatization would play out, but Howard convinced them with the help of mission commander Jim Lovell, whom Howard had wooed by buying his life rights. “It helped a lot to have Jim as our ambassador," says Howard, a two-time Oscar winner. “But I also think they saw the value in sharing a story with that kind of heroism."
Among other help, the production was given use of NASA's Boeing KC-135 aircraft, better known as the “vomit comet." The plane, used to prepare astronauts for zero gravity, allowed Howard to shoot the weightless scenes with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton — 25 seconds at a time. In total, the production did 612 drops in the plane. The process was grueling but worth it: The movie earned several technical Oscar nominations, and Hanks spent the press tour singing the praises of Lovell and all of NASA.
“Their movie and the Mars Pathfinder mission really helped get the program back into the public eye," says Ulrich.
NASA's latest PR win came last year, after director Theodore Melfi was sent Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures, the true story of how three African-American mathematicians helped launch John Glenn. Not only did the movie's script have an important civil rights message, but it also harkened back to the agency's golden era.
“That one was a complete no-brainer for us," says Ulrich, who connected Melfi with the agency's historian to consult on the script. For a critical scene in a wind tunnel, they filmed at Lockheed Martin, one of NASA's primary contractors. “I couldn't have done this movie without NASA," says Melfi. “Their crew was integral to every part of the process."
Of course, not every film gets approval. You won’t see any official NASA logos in Life, for example, about a martian life-form terrorizing the space-station crew. “It is not the kind of story that we wanted to tell," says Ulrich. NASA's general policy is that a film needs to have a NASA story line in it, with clear value to the agency. When the producers of Marvel's The Avengers applied to shoot, they were initially denied. “They sent the script, but there was no mention of us," says Ulrich. So the writers went back and drafted a few shiny new scenes. “The whole opening sequence ended up about us," says Ulrich.
These days NASA's moon-shot mission is Mars — Donald Trump even met with Elon Musk and reportedly talked about a possible flight — and that's reflected in the agency's choice of projects. One of the most prominent was Ron Howard's Mars, a National Geographic special combining documentary vignettes with a futuristic story line. “They seem to realize better now that the story of space needs exposure," says Howard. “Both about what they are working toward for the future and what they have done in the past, like we showed in Apollo 13."
Other movies coming down the pike include the documentary The Mars Generation, Transformers: The Last Knight, and a yet-to-be-titled film produced by J.J. Abrams, about a space station crew that fights for survival — all to be released this year. Of course, the project that Ulrich is most looking forward to is about a human civilization extending its reach beyond its home planet, and NASA hopes to have it ready in a decade or two.
“NASA is on the journey to Mars," Ulrich says. “It may be science fiction today, but it will be science fact tomorrow."