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NASA Embraces the Science of THE MARTIAN

Director Ridley Scott’s upcoming adaptation of The Martian will find Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney stuck on the red planet as he is forced to “science the sh** out of this” to survive. Author Andy Weir thoroughly researched the science behind the story while writing The Martian, but Weir has also admitted to making a few mistakes along the way. Even so, Weir was accurate enough that some people were convinced he had a source inside NASA who was helping him!

To show support for this “love letter to NASA,” the agency’s official site has posted a lengthy blog entry that explores nine real, NASA-developed technologies that are featured in both The Martian film and novel. They are listed below:

  • Habitat
  • Plant Farm
  • Water Recovery
  • Oxygen Generation
  • Mars Spacesuit
  • Rover
  • Ion Propulsion
  • Solar Panels
  • RTG

Most of those terms are self-explanatory. Future Martians would need plants (i.e., food), places to live, air, water, transportation, and bodily protection to survive. The RTG (known to readers of the novel as basically a hot box of death) stands for Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator — a source of electricity that uses heat generated by the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to create a reliable source of electrical power. It sounds futuristic, but RTG technology has existed for over 40 years, and it been used in at least 24 space missions. As NASA’s blog notes, the Mars rover Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rover use a next-generation model of RTG to provide electrical power.

Ion propulsion also sounds like something out of science fiction, used by the crew in The Martian to complete their journey to and from Mars. But ion propulsion technology is already in place on NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft (doesn’t that make it a TIE spacecraft?).  Ion propulsion works by charging a gas (argon or xenon) with electricity and flinging the resulting ions out into space at high speed. At first, the thrust is negligible. But because the ion engines can continuously accelerate over the course of years, it can save fuel and allow spacecraft to achieve incredibly high speeds (Dawn moves at a blistering 9,600 miles per hour).

In The Martian, Mark Watney figures out how to grow a crop of potatoes on Mars using his habitat (the Hab), Martian soil, and some…Watney fertilizer. NASA hasn’t entirely mastered the trick of getting food to grow in space, but the recent space lettuce harvest on the International Space Station is a step in the right direction. On the ISS, seeds are placed in “pillows” within “small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer” that are exposed to red, blue, and green lights to make them grow. One of the goals of that space lettuce experiment is to find a way to create a sustainable supply of food in space for long-term missions.

The entire NASA blog post can be found here, and it is a fascinating read about the current and future realities of space travel. NASA still hopes to run a manned mission to Mars within the next few decades (if SpaceX doesn’t beat them to it). But moviegoers will be able to visit The Martian on October 2, 2015.

Nerdist readers, what do you think about the science behind The Martian? Let us know in the comment section below!

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