The Martian's NASA Landing Successful

by Mark Carreau
Sep 17, 2015

NASA’s warm embrace of the "The Martian," the soon-to-open movie thriller based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel that resonates with much of the agency’s own unfolding vision for human deep space exploration, included a field trip to Johnson Space Center this week for two of the film’s young actors.

Their day-long encounter seemed to leave little doubt about the drama’s real heroes—teamwork driven by hard-won strides in science and engineering.

Mackenzie Davis, who portrays communications engineer Mindy Park in "The Martian," and Sebastian Stan, who plays physician-astronaut Chris Beck, visit with Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. NASA and "The Martian"

“We hope you feel we’ve done some justice to the amazing job you do,” Sebastian Stan, the young Romanian-born actor who plays physician astronaut Chris Beck, told a gathering of JSC astronauts, researchers and program managers at a Sept. 15 end-of-the-day large-screen 3-D preview.

“Thank you for including us in your very cool world,” echoed MacKenzie Davis, the Canadian-born actress who plays communications engineer Mindy Park.

The hearty applause from the filled theater as the credits rolled 2 hr. later suggests "The Martian" struck a chord akin to the passions evoked by the movies "Apollo 13" and "The Right Stuff" two and three decades ago, and perhaps one that will be welcome again in an era filled with the static of political strife. In the film, NASA’s director (not administrator) Teddy Sanders, played by a stern Jeff Daniels, struggles to manage the rescue of stranded astronaut Mark Watney played by a MacGyveresque Matt Damon, from JSC rather than Washington. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides abiding support from a cadre of talented and diverse engineers.

Earlier in the day, Stan and Davis seemed to establish a comfortable bond with their JSC hosts as they were mentored on the intricacies of astronaut training, around-the-clock operations of the International Space Station (ISS) and the measured development of the Orion crew exploration capsule that is to one day join with the Space Launch System exploration rocket to safely start and end the real-life exploration goals portrayed in "The Martian."

The ISS is an essential part of developing the life-support systems that recycle the water and air that will be needed for the months- to years-long forays into deep space, where opportunities for resupply will be rare. The medical research underway on the ISS and required to determine if humans are up to the mental and physical challenges faced by Watney and the brave crew of the deep-space Hermes spacecraft is just as essential.

“The reality is that even if all the technologies are ready—if Orion was magically ready tomorrow—we would be a ‘no go’ for launch because the human body is not yet ready for us to go to Mars,” says Camille Alleyne, NASA’s associate ISS program scientist. Alleyne spoke as the two actors prepared to visit Mission Control for an exchange with NASA ISS crewmembers Scott Kelly, who also marked the midpoint in his near one-year stay on the ISS on Sept. 15, and Kjell Lindgren, a real-life physician astronaut.

“We use the ISS—the one-year mission is an amazing step for us—in understanding the human adaptation in space over long periods of time,” Alleyne said. “It’s not just the technologies, but the human systems too that are critical.”

A risk management theme seemed to pervade throughout the visit, and suitably so. “I guarantee you that at some point everything will go south on you and you’re going to say ‘this is it,’” astronaut Watney reflects at one point in the fictional epic. “Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work.”

“One of the things I felt as I read through the book version was that the mindset of Mark Watney really reminds me of NASA,” says Ellen Ochoa, JSC’s real-life director and a patent-holding, Stanford University-educated electrical engineer.

“OK, I’m going to understand my situation. I have got to figure out the first thing that will kill me, then the next thing and the next thing,” explained Ochoa, also a veteran of four shuttle missions who holds the distinction of being the first Hispanic female space traveler. “Then when you get [Mission Control] involved, you sort of saw those folks thinking in the same way, trying to figure out what the next step would be. That is very much what we do day in and day out throughout the history of human spaceflight. That part really tells the story of what we do here at NASA, and that is something I hope audiences will get out of this.”

Errors and oversights can be fatal.

“We never forget how serious the physics is. We have lost friends in the business,” added Rex Walheim, who leads the exploration branch of NASA’s astronaut office and who flew three shuttle ISS assembly missions, including the fleet’s final flight in July 2011.

“We know it’s a very difficult, very dangerous business,” Walheim said. “The thing we like about the movie is that it shows how you must think—one, two, three steps ahead. And not just about what you think—and [what could] go wrong. You must have a tremendous amount of imagination to consider things you may not have thought of and to think of ways to capture errors you may have thought cannot happen. It’s really exciting to see people put that in the picture and kind of give life to what we live around here.”

In Ridley Scott’s exacting direction of "The Martian," Watney frequently pays tribute to real-life astronaut bravado—often exhibited as humorous expressions meant to compliment the NASA team.

As Ochoa introduced Stan and Davis to an auditorium filled with many of JSC’s workforce at the start of their field trip, she pointed to a small sample of Martian meteorite, one of many extraterrestrial samples preserved by the NASA field center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate.

“You can go back and tell the other cast members you got closer to Mars than any of them ever will,” she quipped.

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