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The Science Behind “The Martian” And Its Partnership With NASA

How The Martian and NASA aligned to bring greater scientific accuracy to the film and inspire greater interest in space travel.

The Science Behind “The Martian” And Its Partnership With NASA
[Photo: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox]

After the blood moon lunar eclipse and the announcement of flowing water on Mars, the third in this week’s astronomical trifecta—the anticipated 20th Century Fox film The Martian—opens October 2.

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What sets this movie apart from the majority of science fiction offerings is its commitment to scientific accuracy. Not only was the science in the source novel, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, honed by an online community of savvy readers, but director Ridley Scott harnessed NASA as a significant resource.

So much so that they’ve created a marketing synergy, from a San Diego Comic-Con panel and daylong Martian media event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) this summer, to the curiously coincidental timing of NASA’s announcement of signs of flowing water on Mars the week of the film’s opening. [Update: The announcement was tied to the paper’s Sept 28 publication in Nature Geoscience.] NASA gives The Martian additional science cred, while The Martian inspires more interest in space exploration.

“Science fiction is mostly fantasy,” says director Ridley Scott. “But what is attractive about The Martian is the total reality of the situation—the challenges an astronaut may have in 15 or 20 years.”

Matt Damon, who plays stranded astronaut Mark Watney, says “When I first spoke with Drew Goddard, who did the screenplay, the first thing he said was, ‘I want this to be a love letter to science.’ I hope that some kids see it and geek out on the science, and maybe it’s one of the things that pushes them in that direction.”

Photo: Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Crowdsourcing knowledge

Author Andy Weir laid out much of the science in the novel—thanks to a little help from the “3000 hardcore geeks” reading his blog where he had initially unfurled The Martian a chapter at a time before posting it as a $1 e-book that was discovered by publisher Crown/Random House.

“I didn’t know anyone in aerospace when I started out, so I was on my own,” says Weir, a computer programmer at the time. “I had more than a layman’s knowledge of this stuff, because it’s been my hobby my whole life, but other than that it was tons of Google research and doing the math. I got feedback from my readers, who are pretty scientifically minded people. They pointed out where I got things wrong. I learned about orbital dynamics, the way we get to and from Mars, the details about its surface, temperature ranges, atmosphere. It was like having thousands of fact-checkers.”

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Astronaut Drew Feustel, actor Matt Damon, director Ridley Scott, author Andy Weir, and NASA’s James Green at The Martian press conference at JPL.Photo: Bill Ingalls, NASA

NASA’s input

With the book already bringing much of the science, Scott’s job was making it look as realistic as possible.

NASA director of planetary sciences James Green addresses journalists.Photo: Bill Ingalls, NASA

“Ridley reached out to us,” says James Green, NASA’s director of planetary sciences. “He really wanted to understand the designs NASA has developed for the habitats, rovers, ascent vehicle for Mars. I pulled together a team of people who answered hundreds of questions over several months. We got [production designer] Art Max to the Johnson Space Center for a look around. We showed him our initial designs of the Mars habitats. He took a couple thousand shots and asked, ‘Where does the crew sleep, eat? Where’s the sink? Where’s the microwave? Why do you put them there?’, all this stuff.

The production solutions may, in turn, inspire NASA. “They had to develop things we hadn’t,” adds Green. “Their designs get stuck in your psyche. As we move forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t adopt things in their movie for our real habitats that end up on Mars. Helping with the movie may have us rethinking our own designs.”

Other scientific flourishes

The film crew took care to honor the accuracy of other scientific aspects, which can be difficult in light of new discoveries (cue: water on Mars.)

Martian gravity

Hollywood has weightlessness down, thanks to wires or filming 20 seconds at a time in parabolic flight. But partial gravity is a little trickier.

“Mars is 40% of Earth’s gravity, so by the time you put on a fairly chunky surface suit, it’s fairly heavy,” says Scott. “So we worked out the mathematics roughly, and it’s more or less just under normal movement. So that’s where we made our decision.”

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Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager Jim Erickson, Matt Damon, and astronaut Drew Feustel in JPL’s Mars Yard, where engineers test machinery on a terrain similar to that of Mars. Often, they’ll use lighter weight versions to simulate Martian gravity.Photo: Bill Ingalls, NASA

Astronaut psyche

Damon’s embrace of Watney’s cocky humor drove home his control and coolness in the wake of a terrifying situation.

“Any mission in space requires psychological stability. We have to be smart enough to fly the spacecraft back to Earth, but a little bit wacky to sit on top of that rocket fuel,” astronaut Drew Feustel says with a laugh. “When the countdown gets to zero, you’re definitely having second thoughts about the decisions you make in your life to get there. But you go there and do a job you’re trained to do.

“Part of our job as astronauts is to educate and inspire people, and get public support,” he adds. “It’s great when we have help from Hollywood. Many of us have visions of exploring space and getting to Mars and beyond, and the movie really brings those things to life in a relevant way. I hope we can combine the arts and sciences to keep that momentum going.”

JPL’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, here in a JPL clean room, is undergoing tests to land much larger objects on Mars by slowing them to a speed where a parachute can handle their descent.Photo: Susan Karlin

Hydrochemistry and botany

In the film, Watney makes water from rocket fuel in order to grow crops to sustain him until a rescue mission is sent. Which made sense at the time…

The Martian was locked around the time Curiosity landed in 2012, “so Watney does all this stuff to generate water on Mars in a huge hassle of reducing hydrazine and blowing himself up,” says Weir. “Then Curiosity, that little pain in the ass, goes down to Mars and samples the soil and finds out that for every cubic meter of Martian soil, there’s about 35 liters of water trapped in it. So all he has to do is bring some dirt inside and heat it up.”

Still, the discrepancy speaks to the ongoing font and pace of information coming from Mars. Since Curiosity landed in an ancient river bed, initially intimating water at one time, NASA has since learned that Mars might be more hospitable to growing food than previously thought.

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“The soil has nitrates, and the atmosphere is more humid than we expected,” says Green. “Other than perchlorates, which are indeed a hazard, and requiring additional material (fertilizer), we don’t think it’s the stumbling block we once thought anymore. It’s now a matter of how to be able to do that. Mars also has a significant amount of water. We believe there’s underground aquifers, and we’ve seen a buried glacier. We used to think we were going to have to bring our water with us, but now we can tell the astronauts, ‘Just bring your straw.’”

Matt Damon is interviewed in JPL’s Mission Control.Photo: Bill Ingalls, NASA

Hollywood ‘s Launchpad to Science

JPL’s summer press conference with The Martian enabled it to tout some of the research facilitating Mars exploration. NASA rovers have been prowling the planet for the last 11 years. In March, JPL will deploy its InSight probe to study seismic measurements there and is working on a Mars Exploration Sample Return to collect and ferry rock samples back to Earth for more complicated analysis.

The Mars 2020 Mission Rover, to launch in 2020 and land in 2021, will further analyze surface geology, scout for remnants of life, and test extracting oxygen from the atmosphere.

MSL systems engineers engineers Jason Reid and Doug Klein, plus full-time intern Andrew Ferguson (not shown) test a Mars 2020 rover rotary percussive drill system designed to pulverize Martian rock, and thicker wheels of stronger aluminum alloys to avoid the puncturing that plagued Curiosity’s wheels. Unlike Curiosity’s subversive “JPL” spelled out Morse code, “there will be no messages on the wheels now that NASA is wise to our schemes,” says Ferguson.Photo: Susan Karlin

In further preparation for human travel to Mars—which involves an 18-month round-trip journey—NASA has astronaut Scott Kelly living aboard the International Space Station for a year to gauge the long-term physical and psychological effects of living in space. It’s developing a Space Launch System, Orion capsule, and ion propulsion engines to carry humans and supplies into deep space, and a Low Density Supersonic Decelerator to land much larger objects on Mars. NASA, in the process of choosing a zone on Mars for human exploration, will discuss possible sites at an Oct. 27 workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

“We’re talking about the Mars generation,” says Green. “When we landed Curiosity on Mars, we had the world’s attention. That’s the inspiration that will propel our economy forward by bringing in the scientists and the engineers. And the movie and book is a fabulous opportunity for us to celebrate that.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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