Those who criticized Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar for being too unrealistic are in for a treat. In October, perhaps the most science-based science fiction space film ever will hit theaters: The Martian, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Andy Weir.
The Martian is written in the form of a log by a fictional NASA astronaut, Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars after his team evacuates the planet during a brutal dust storm, believing him to be dead. But the resourceful and witty Watney is very much alive, and must figure out how to survive, alone, with an extremely limited food supply on a barren planet where nothing grows.
In addition to being an excellent sci-fi story, it’s also probably the most thrilling book about botany ever written. Matt Damon will play Watney in the film adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott (who’s no stranger to space, having directed both Alien and Prometheus).
Programmer-turned-writer Weir researched the science meticulously, ensuring the technologies that help Watney survive were rooted in reality. Part of the book’s charm is in its technicality—deciphering all the intricate space jargon mirrors Watney’s own quest to survive.
The science involved is so accurate that NASA has completely embraced the film. Scott and his crew toured NASA before filming, and this week 20th Century Fox held a press briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to show off some of the real-life space tech that’s featured in the movie. On Tuesday, Aug. 19, NASA unveiled the nine major technologies from the film that either already exist or are currently being developed by NASA.
Here are some of the highlights:
A good chunk of The Martian takes place in Watney’s habitat, affectionately known as the Hab. The Hab is based on Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), a self-contained habitat that NASA crews train in for long-duration deep space missions.
HERA is a self-contained environment that simulates a deep-space habit. The two-story habitat is complete with living quarters, workspaces, a hygiene module and a simulated airlock. Within the module, test subjects conduct operational tasks, complete payload objectives and live together for 14 days (soon planned to increase to up to 60 days), simulating future missions in the isolated environment. Astronauts have recently used the facility to simulate ISS missions. These research analogs provide valuable data in human factors, behavioral health and countermeasures to help further NASA’s understanding on how to conduct deep space operations.
Much of the drama surrounds how Watney feeds himself for an extended Martian stay when the supplies he was sent with were only meant to last a short time. It turns out he was an expert potato farmer in another life.
Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm in “The Martian,” making potatoes the first Martian staple. Today, in low-Earth orbit, lettuce is the most abundant crop in space. Aboard the International Space Station, Veggie is a deployable fresh-food production system. Using red, blue, and green lights, Veggie helps plants grow in pillows, small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer, to be harvested by astronauts. In 2014, astronauts used the system to grow “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and just recently sampled this space-grown crop for the first time. This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars.
Watney is left with a Martian rover—which requires heavy modifications—as his sole means of transportation around the planet.
On Earth today, NASA is working to prepare for every encounter with the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The MMSEV has been used in NASA’s analog mission projects to help solve problems that the agency is aware of and to reveal some that may be hidden. The technologies are developed to be versatile enough to support missions to an asteroid, Mars, its moons and other missions in the future. NASA’s MMSEV has helped address issues like range, rapid entry/exit and radiation protection. Some versions of the vehicle have six pivoting wheels for maneuverability. In the instance of a flat tire, the vehicle simply lifts up the bad wheel and keeps on rolling.
Food, water, shelter: three essentials for survival on Earth. But there’s a fourth we don’t think about much, because it’s freely available: oxygen. On Mars, Watney can’t just step outside for a breath of fresh air. To survive, he has to carry his own supply of oxygen everywhere he goes. But first he has to make it. In his Hab he uses the “oxygenator,” a system that generates oxygen using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator.
On the International Space Station, the astronauts and cosmonauts have the Oxygen Generation System, which reprocesses the atmosphere of the spacecraft to continuously provide breathable air efficiently and sustainably. The system produces oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which splits water molecules into their component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is either discarded into space or fed into the Sabatier System, which creates water from the remaining byproducts in the station’s atmosphere.
There are no gas stations on Mars. No power plants. Virtually no wind. When it comes to human missions to the Red Planet, solar energy can get the astronauts far. The Hermes spacecraft in the book uses solar arrays for power, and Mark Watney has to use solar panels in some unconventional ways to survive on Mars.
Orion, NASA’s spacecraft that will take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before, will use solar arrays for power in future missions. The arrays can gather power while in sunlight to charge onboard lithium-ion batteries. In case no sunlight is available – for instance, if Orion were to go behind the Moon – there would still be plenty of power to allow it to operate.
Head over to NASA to read about the others, which include Watney’s spacesuit, ion propulsion, and a water recovery system.