The Martian book

The Martian: Putting the Science in Science Fiction

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Sri Ray-Chauduri, Technology & Engineering co-editor

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster The Martian.

The Martian book

The Martian book cover (CC-BY 3.0)

But before you assume it’s just another high-profile science fiction story set in a distant future of intergalactic wars and alien species, consider this: prior its world premier at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the movie held a press day at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with a panel that not only featured the movie’s star and director, but NASA’s head of planetary science, an astronaut, and the computer-programmer-turned-author of this NYT bestseller. Not only that, but last weekend astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) enjoyed a pre-screening of the film in space. What sets The Martian apart from your standard scifi is that it’s plausible: a fictional story grounded in real science and engineering, with technologies that will likely come to fruition in the next 20 to 30 years on our Journey to Mars.

The Martian centres around astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself marooned on Mars after his mission crew escapes during a violent dust storm. Faced with limited supplies and no rescue in the near future, Watney uses his background as a mechanical engineer and botanist to survive on the Red Planet.

He takes refuge in the habitation module, a pressurized environment with air and water, he has a Rover in which to zoom around outside, and even attempts to farm potatoes. The necessities of life are not a backdrop to the story, but the main attraction: the detailed intricacies of figuring out how to ‘re-engineer’ fuel or oxygen systems take centre stage in the plot, with dialogue driven by mathematical calculations, stoichiometry, and the language of tinkering with various technologies.

The book’s author, Andy Weir, is a self-described space enthusiast. He meticulously researched his facts to ensure the story was technically correct, even writing computer programs to check the orbital trajectories used in the storyline. After it was picked up as a movie, NASA became actively involved to further ensure that what was portrayed on the screen was technically accurate. Although Weir fretted on social media that some story parts didn’t line up with the physics, the bulk of the science and engineering described in The Martian, and the science used by the main character to navigate his dilemma, is rooted in existing technologies and knowledge.

For starters, the real plan to get to Mars is already in the works. NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, the first vehicle in 40 years designed to take humans past low earth orbit, underwent its first unpiloted test flight last year. Lifting off on a Delta IV heavy rocket from Florida, Orion reached an altitude of just under 5800 km, encountered high levels of radiation in the Van Allen belt, and experienced temperatures nearing 2200°C before splashdown in the Pacific ocean. For Orion to even reach Mars will require a stronger rocket; NASA is currently building the Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket, which will stand taller than Parliament’s Peace Tower and weigh the equivalent of 7.5 fully loaded 747 airline jets.*

Orion NASA

Taking a closer look at Orion after successful flight test (Image from NASA,in the public domain).

In The Martian, Watney’s survival depends on several key pieces of technology.

His spacesuit is his life-saver: after he’s injured, its life support systems kick in to maintain suit pressure and remove excess carbon dioxide, paralleling real issues of extra-vehicular spacesuit design. Spacesuits are essential to the human exploration of space; however, prototypes currently under development by NASA for future missions will likely be bulkier than the streamlined orange suits seen in the The Martian movie trailer.

Watney also checks his ‘Oxygenator’ and ‘Water Reclaimer’ to ensure they’re functioning, and formulates a plan to produce the extra water he needs by combusting his hydrazine rocket fuel. Currently, aboard the ISS, the oxygen generating system produces oxygen through the electrolysis of water, while the majority of water (whether from hand washing or urine) is recycled via the water recovery system.**

Watney’s Rover, which is central to his survival and rescue, strongly resembles a new generation of Space Exploration Vehicles (SEVs) being developed to transport humans on non-terrestrial surfaces. Building on the experience of lunar rovers from NASA’s Apollo missions and the robotic rovers on Mars, these concept SEVs will be engineered to include pressurized cabins, pivoting wheels for movement over difficult terrain, and batteries that can support travel over meaningful distances.

SEV rover Martian

An example of one of NASA’s SEV Rovers (Image from NASA, in the public domain).

One of the more interesting images from the movie includes Watney trying to grow potatoes on Mars. Experiments have shown the potential for plants to grow in simulated Martian soils. The simple issue of the weight of payloads combined with the length of human space missions means space agriculture in some form or another could be a reality. Recently, a plant growth system aboard the ISS called Veggie allowed astronauts to enjoy fresh red romaine lettuce. Veggie uses red, blue, and green LED lights along with a small amount of water to initiate lettuce growth in a mixture of fertilizer and clay.

Veggie ISS

The ISS-40 Vegetable Production System (Veggie) (Image from NASA, in the public domain).

Of course, there are some technical details not fully considered in the movie, such as movement in the reduced gravity on Mars relative to Earth, or the fact that minimizing astronaut exposure to radiation remains a difficult challenge. However, The Martian is fiction after all, and even with these shortcomings it’s received a nod of approval from the likes of Chris Hadfield and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The appeal of The Martian is that it cares as much about the science as it does the storyline. It doesn’t solve problems by relying on unexplainable devices that are only figments of our imagination, but demonstrates the use of hard work and creative thinking to engineer solutions. As NASA’s planetary science director and astrophysicist Jim Green said:

“Science fiction is extremely important in our culture…it really projects a vision of the future, something we aspire to. What I really enjoyed about the book and the movie is how close to reality it can be. It’s just around the corner for us.”

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* Simply building the SLS required the creation of the Vertical Assembly Center, which at 52 meters tall and 24 meters wide is the world’s largest spacecraft welding tool.

** Recent insight into the role of water on Mars might lead to new ideas on how to produce sustainable quantities of water on Mars that are less risky than igniting fuel.

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