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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘The Martian’ from the eyes of a NASA employee

Without billions to reproduce a NASA mission, the producers of Matt Damon’s latest still manage to recreate some reality
The Martian from the eyes of a NASA employee
20th Century Fox

The blog-turned-book-turned-movie “The Martian” will captivate its viewers with top-notch acting and storylines, but the real highlight is the science behind it. Trust me, I’ve been to Mars.

To clarify, I haven’t really been to Mars, but I do work for California-based NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and have been to the sandy fields where engineers test the rovers before they journey to the Red Planet.

JPL houses some of the world’s most intelligent scientific minds. You may have heard of them from projects such as the Saturn-orbiting satellite Cassini, or the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, aka the rover that’s rolling around the surface of Mars at this very moment. JPL also plays a major role in the soon-to-be-released film “The Martian.” 


Working at JPL and living in Los Angeles had its perks, one of which was early movie screenings. I saw “The Martian” in July, far before its Oct. 2 release. When I saw the film, it was still in the editing process. Harnesses and cables used to make the film’s astronauts “float” were still visible, helmets were without glass shields covering actors’ faces and animations looked like they came straight from a 1950s cartoon.

All of this, however, didn’t detract from the movie’s stellar plot and acting.

When astronauts get left in space

With a gripping opening scene, the film follows the intense journey of fictional astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon, “Interstellar”). He finds himself stranded on Mars after a freak sandstorm, presumed dead by those back home. 

Watney is forced to survive on the barren Red Planet and hold out hope that someone, somewhere will find him. Eventually, wide-eyed and quirky satellite controller Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis, “A Country Called Home”) sees images of Watney wandering about and notifies her superiors. They frantically brainstorm how to bring Watney back to Earth while simultaneously curating a seamless PR campaign around the accidental abandonment. 

Watney’s time on Mars is filled mostly with optimism, sarcasm and potatoes. But there are enough unfortunate events and chaos to remind viewers that being stuck on Mars isn’t actually fun.

Challenges behind depicting space

Andy Weir, the book’s original author, is a self-proclaimed “science geek.” While some of the “The Martian” is based in scientific fact, much of it isn’t. To investigate the facts behind this science fiction, I’ll quote Watney and say, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

In an interview with NPR, Weir admits the biggest scientific inaccuracy comes right at the beginning of the film, when a sandstorm strands Watney. He said this inaccuracy originates from the book and isn’t a product of Hollywood glorification. Weir said “The Martian” is a story of man versus nature; he wanted nature to “get the first punch.”

“In reality, Mars’ atmosphere is 1/200 the density of Earth’s,” Weir said. “So while they do get 150 kph sandstorms, the inertia behind them, because their air is so thin, would feel like a gentle breeze on Earth. A Martian sandstorm can’t do any damage, and I knew that at the time I wrote it.”

Set makers for the film strove to create reality in the fiction. But this proved to be a challenge on many levels.

Matt Damon stands in JPL’s mission control room, the operation center for all active missions.

Arthur Max, a set designer for the film, said in an interview with Astronomy the biggest challenge of constructing that reality was trying to re-create what NASA does. But instead of billions of dollars and decades of planning, the set designers had only millions of dollars and months to finish.

To get the set and props just right, Max said he took multiple trips to JPL and Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Weir, Damon and other cast members all made visits to JPL, and though JPL does appear in the film, I can fully attest the lab does not, in fact, look like a high tech airport.

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