Spaceflight Insider

“The Martian” – draws on actual NASA Technology

NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, Jim Green, Nicole Stott The Martian photo credit Laurel Ann Whitlock SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Laurel Ann Whitlock / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — Art met science today as actors from The Martian motion picture from 20th Century Fox and their real-life NASA counterparts answered questions about NASA’s journey to Mars – selected from some 10,000 students. NASA personnel lauded Andy Weir’s book The Martian as a real page-turner and hoped it will bring more attention to the U.S. space program.

The event was attended live by 30 students who are members of the robotics clubs of four local high schools. More than 10,000 additional students attended via a download link. Questions to the panel were from students in the room, across the country, and via Twitter for those watching on NASA TV.

Mackenzie Davis; Jim Green

Mackenzie Davis (left); Jim Green (right). Photo Credit: Bill Jelen / SpaceFlight Insider

Jim Green, NASA’s director of Planetary Science Division, set the stage by stating: “There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the Earth. At least one of those was caused by a near-Earth object colliding with Earth. There are hundreds such objects and it is not a question of if it happens again but when.”

Green went on to highlight the critical need that space exploration plays in the survival of the human race.

“If you have a computer at home, you back up the data, right? As a species, we need to back up the human race. Mars is the nearest planet where this would be possible. We are a species of explorers, but also a species who wants to survive. The whole reason that dinosaurs are not here today is because they did not have a space program,” Green said.

Green then shared several slides showing the locations on Mars of the two current functioning rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity), the non-functioning rovers (Sojourner and Spirit) and a list of future robotic explorers that are planned to be sent to the Red Planet. He explained the steps that need to take place before there can be a colony on Mars. Most critically in this regard – NASA has to solve the problem of getting 40 metric tons of weight to the fourth planet from our Sun. This will likely require 4 separate shipments. That would be enough equipment to allow humans to survive on the surface of the dusty, flash-frozen world.

When questions were taken from students, the first hard-hitting question was: “How has the lack of government funding impacted your ability to get to Mars?”

Bob Cabana

Bob Cabana. Photo Credit: Bill Jelen / SpaceFlight Insider

Former NASA astronaut and current Director of Kennedy Space Center, Cabana explained: “From a human spaceflight point of view, the budget is [quite] flat throughout the [next few] years. We are putting the infrastructure of a crew vehicle and a really big rocket in place. Once we have proven that capability with a crewed flight in 2021, then the money that was going to that capability can be used to develop a habitability module.”

Cabana also spoke about NASA’s next spacecraft, Orion.

“The Orion Crew module only supports a crew of 4 for 21 days. If we want to stay in space longer than that, then we have to have a habitability module. A trip to Mars right now with current propulsion technology will take a year and a half to two years. That’s why we need new propulsion.”

The space flight veteran then noted that, at some point, the agency is going to need increased financial or international support.

“After a habitability module, we need some sort or a lander, and then an ascent vehicle so we can leave. It is very well staged out, how we develop these capabilities as we progress given the flat budget.”

NASA collaborated on the film with 20th Century Fox Entertainment. KSC lists nine technologies from the film that NASA is already developing: Habitat, Plant Farm, Water Recovery, Oxygen Generation, Mars Spacesuit, Rover, Ion Propulsion, Solar Panels, and Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators.

Annie Caraccio, a NASA engineer, explained: “One of the projects that I work on is a Mars Atmosphere Processing Unit. It takes in the Mars atmosphere and it converts the carbon dioxide, which is 95 percent of the Martian atmosphere, and it uses cryo-coolers to freeze it out and a reactor creates methane and water. We really like methane, because a lot of the ascent vehicles use liquid oxygen and liquid methane engines.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor; Dave Lavery

Chiwetel Ejiofor (left); Dave Lavery (right). Photo Credit: Bill Jelen / SpaceFlight Insider

One of the more poignant comments came from Dave Lavery, Program Executive from Solar System Exploration. He was asked where he would like to land on Mars. He said: “I would land near the Pathfinder site. That was the first Mars mission that I worked on in my NASA career.

“We don’t know precisely where the rover is. The way the Mars Pathfinder worked is that we communicated through the lander to the rover. The lander died first. The rover was then programmed that if it lost communication with Earth it had a couple of behaviors that allowed it to continue to operate.

“We don’t know how long it lasted or where it ended up when it finally gave out. I would like to go back to the Mars Pathfinder site and find my rover someday.”

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays NASA’s director of Mars Vincent Kapoor in the movie, said he kept Wikipedia open while preparing for the film. He was well-versed and asked a couple of questions of the scientists on the panel.

Actress Mackenzie Davis hopes that her role in the movie encourages girls to pursue careers in science and technology. “I’ve had the luck of hanging out with [astronaut Dr. Nicole Stott] who lived on the ISS. Getting to talk to them directly and have them explain things that I am interested in a way that is not prohibitive has been such a treat and I think that is what movies do as well.

“You get to have a model for a person that you get to know on an emotional level, and then the job that seems far away seems closer to you.”

Dust expert Michael Johansen (left) and NASA astronaut Nicole Scott (right).

Dust expert Michael Johansen (left) and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott (right). Photo Credit: Bill Jelen / SpaceFlight Insider

She also commented that this was her first time at Kennedy Space Center. Although she had researched Mars images to prepare for the role, she was shown images this morning that were taken just four hours ago on Mars. “It is emotionally exciting to see the real science,” she said.

Although NASA collaborated on the film, one NASA scientist was there to provide his reaction to the start of the movie. Michael Johansen, Experimental Equipment Engineer, works on dust mitigation for NASA. He said: “There was some creative license at the very beginning of the movie. A dust storm sets off the whole story of The Martian.

“The thing that we have to remember is that the Martian atmosphere is very thin – about 1/100th of what we have here on Earth. There is a lot of high-velocity wind of Mars. But because the atmosphere is 1/100th as thick as on Earth, a 100 MPH dust storm as shown in the start of the movie would only feel like a light breeze here on Earth.”

Astronaut Nicole Stott thanked the movie-makers: “I just want to say ‘Thank you’ because it has been really impressive to me to spend time with the movie crew and to see the deep-down heartfelt enthusiasm for what the basis of the story is, and to allow us as NASA to communicate to audiences that might not ever think about space in their day-to-day routine.

“We need to do more of that, presenting the real science stuff, mixed with interesting stories to engage the public on our journey to Mars.”

The Martian opens in movie theaters on October 1, 2015.


SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.

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