Director Ridley Scott’s extensive research for his upcoming film “The Martian” ensured the movie would be truer to science than fiction.
CAPE CANAVERAL — Working on The Martian, the movie thriller opening Friday about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, gave actor Mackenzie Davis a better appreciation for what would make a Mars mission so difficult.
“That I have no skill set to survive,” Davis joked during a panel discussion Thursday at Kennedy Space Center. “But I did learn a lot about chemistry and math, and the sort of person that could survive there, so there’s a model for me, if I ever need to do that.”
While that need may never arise, it is NASA’s stated goal to send humans to Mars, or at least to one of its moons or into orbit around the planet, by the late 2030s.
The space agency has taken advantage of the blockbuster movie — starring Matt Damon and based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir — to promote its own “journey to Mars.”
NASA scientists, engineers and astronauts also are seizing the opportunity to highlight science fact versus science fiction about Mars, as during Thursday’s two panel discussions fielding questions from Brevard County students and thousands more tuned in across the country.
The students learned, for example, that the violent dust storm that causes the stranding of Mark Watney, the astronaut Damon plays, couldn’t really happen.
Mars’ atmosphere is so thin compared to Earth’s, with about one hundredth as much pressure, that even a high-velocity wind would have felt more like a light breeze to Watney.
But The Martian, which has been praised for its realism, got a lot right.
Annie Caraccio, a chemical engineer at KSC who last year lived for 120 days in a “fake Mars” habitat in Hawaii, said it realistically portrayed the challenge and frustration of 40-minute communications delays between Earth and Mars, something she simulated.
“Being hands on and understanding how to be innovative on your own is going to be so important for that crew,” she said. “Because you’re not going to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘How does this system work?’ ”
Video : KSC Mars Panel discussion. Posted by Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY Posted Oct. 1, 2015
In the movie, Davis’ character plays a NASA engineer back on Earth who helps track Watney’s movements and communications. The panel also included Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor who plays the mission’s director, who said it wasn’t hard to make the part realistic because of the story’s “seamless” merging of fact and fiction.
On Mars, Watney attempts to grow potatoes in his habitat to avoid starving with a rescue mission potentially years away.
“Potatoes are a good choice,” confirmed Ray Wheeler, a plant physiologist at KSC.
“Until you run out of ketchup,” joked Jim Green, planetary science chief at NASA headquarter in Washington, D.C.
No one would wish Watney’s predicament on a real crew, but Nicole Stott, a former NASA astronaut who lived on the International Space Station, said days rarely go exactly according to plan. She said the crew in the movie’s harrowing opening scenes accurately depicted how astronauts would try to cope with a crisis.
“It’s hitting the fan and they respond in a very — I don’t want to say emotionless — way, but the kind of way you would need to deal with each other to be successful,” she said.
More artistic license may have been taken concerning astronauts’ musical tastes. KSC Director Bob Cabana, a veteran of four shuttle missions who called the book a page-turner with a “very plausible” plot, said he couldn’t guess which real astronaut would be most likely to bring disco to Mars, like the commander of the fictional Ares 3 crew.
“It wouldn’t be me,” he said. “That period of music can just go away as far as I’m concerned.”
Why go to Mars at all?
Green said it was to establish Earth 2.0, protecting against the possibility of a cataclysmic asteroid strike that wipes out humanity.
Just like a computer hard drive, he said, “We have to be able to back up our human race.”
Gioia Massa, a KSC plant scientist leading an experiment that is growing vegetables on the space station, took that notion a step further.
“You can also think of it as a backup planet for all life on Earth,” she said. “We’re kind of everybody else’s only hope as well, all the animals and plants and everything.”
Asked what technologies need to be developed for Mars missions, Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration, answered, “All of them.”
Those include life support systems, systems for landing on Mars and getting off of it, a habitat and radiation shielding.
He said NASA’s recent announcement about finding water that actually flows on the surface at times, and is not just locked in polar ice caps, could be a “game-changer” for human exploration missions, providing a potential source of drinking water and components for rocket fuel.
“It really changes the whole scenario, the whole architecture for how do we get to Mars and get back,” he said.
Students asked tough questions about NASA’s flat budget, which has prompted more than one independent report to question whether NASA can possibly launch a human Mars expedition on the timeframe it says it is working toward.
Cabana noted that NASA’s budget now is less than one half of 1% of the federal budget, compared to more than 4% during the Apollo program, but said the agency has a sound plan.
“It’s very well staged out how we develop these capabilities as we progress given the flat budget,” he said.
At least as long as The Martian remains part of the public consciousness, it might help make NASA’s journey to Mars feel more real and imminent, just as it could inspire young people to pursue science and technology careers.
Movies “let you get to have a model for a person that you can get to know on an emotional level,” said Mackenzie Davis. “And then the job that seems far away, or that you hadn’t seen represented before, feels closer to you.”
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