A web exclusive story from Astronomy magazine

Behind the science of The Martian

Illustration by Astronomy: Chuck Braasch from a Aidan Monaghan photo

Self-proclaimed science geek Andy Weir never thought The Martian would be published. Now, the New York Times best-seller is about to put NASA's Red Planet plans in the limelight.

By Eric Betz

A small white sprinter van kicks up red dust as it slides across the “martian” sand toward a yurt-like astronaut habitat. Its path winds past the scorched remains of a Mars Ascent Vehicle built to launch crew to orbit. Above this fictional Mars-scape, a ceiling vaults some six stories tall, placing the cavernous soundstage among the largest in the world. Small blimps bolster legions of lights. Green screen sheets line the stadium-sized walls. Eventually, images of blue Mars sunsets and butterscotch evening skies captured by NASA’s rovers will become a backdrop, along with shots of Wadi Rum, Jordan — a red desert stand-in for Mars.

But for now, it’s more like a surreal sandbox here at the last day of filming on set at The Martian. And a group of young Hungarian men are stepping out of the van to start the long disassembly process. Their present task, removing laboratory equipment from the astronaut habitat, or Hab, is easy in comparison to the one to come — someone has to remove all 1,200 tons of this carefully color-matched Mars dirt.

For 12 weeks, this movie set, through suburbs and past Hungarian countryside homes on the outskirts of Budapest, has seen many of Hollywood’s biggest stars and most celebrated filmmakers.

The scene is what every crazed Moon landing conspiracy theorist imagines Stanley Kubrick doing half a century earlier. Some of NASA’s most senior scientists believe that when The Martian hits big screens October 2, the movie’s obsessive adherence to science fact will be enough to make their nonfictional “Journey to Mars” real for millions of Americans. Because in contrast to the silver screen space agency of the same name, NASA’s actual program is nowhere near ready for prime time.

If humanity is to put astronauts on Mars, NASA is going to need a surge in support to levels unseen in generations. That’s an unlikely achievement for a Hollywood film, but The Martian is just one part of NASA’s growing publicity machine.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

A love letter to science

In the film, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, one of the first astronauts to walk on Mars. He’s what Jim Irwin was to the actual Apollo program — an “also went.” That is, until a mishap leaves Watney alone on the Red Planet with only his considerable wit and scientific ingenuity to survive while NASA mounts a heroic rescue attempt.

Author Andy Weir’s book The Martian is a stroke of sci-fi genius. The novel does for space adventure fans what the soft core romance novel does for jilted lovers. It’s a true love letter to science — space escapism at its best. But can filmmakers turn science-based fiction into a Hollywood hit? In February, I trekked halfway across the planet — at the invitation of Twentieth Century Fox — to find out.

In February, Astronomy editor Eric Betz got a behind-the-scenes tour of The Martian at Korda Studios in Budapest, Hungary.
Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

To a large extent, The Martian’s success or failure sits on the shoulders of one man. For decades, legendary director Ridley Scott has simultaneously been hailed as a cinematic genius and languished with some of Hollywood’s biggest flops. But he gave film lovers Thelma and Louise, winner of six Academy Awards, as well as Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and the entire Alien universe.

Scott is known for epics with great attention to detail, and this movie lives up to that legacy. The rockets, modules, and space suits were built — and 3-D printed — with heavy guidance from NASA. The filmmakers even hired Rudi Schmidt, former project manager of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, to test all the experiments done in the movie, including turning water into rocket fuel — which I’m told works, by the way.

“We want to make the film as much science fact as science fiction,” says executive producer Mark Huffam (World War Z, Saving Private Ryan).

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Mars czar meets Dark Side of the Moon

As I shuffle into a nearby soundstage, a crowd gathers behind a horde of cameras pointed at a section of the Hermes spacecraft — an ion-powered ship that ferries astronauts back and forth to Mars. One crew member calls out a countdown, and I realize most everyone but me has orange earplugs buried deep in their ear canals.

Arthur Max, veteran set designer and frequent Scott collaborator, supplies a pair shortly before an explosive blast rings out and the spacecraft’s airlock erupts in flames.

Of all the characters on Scott’s regular filmmaking crew, Max is the most captivating. He’s a towering man with penetrating eyes and a face weather-lined from years of filming in desert climes and empty parking lots. He’s a native New Yorker, but his accent betrays a career spent with Brits. Max’s first big break came working stage lights at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. That landed him a gig designing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon shows. Then, 30 years ago, Scott asked him to help make a Coca-Cola commercial. They’ve since created some of Hollywood’s greatest epics together.

Once the excitement clears from the airlock explosion, Max guides our small group of science writers around the rest of Hermes — or what hasn’t been loaded into crates.

Astronauts use the flight deck to monitor all aspects of the Hermes spacecraft during their journey to Mars.
Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

“The challenge of this film, really, for myself and those people who work with me in the art department, has been to generate what NASA does with billions of dollars of funding over several decades, with millions of dollars over several months,” Max says.

For Max, that process began with trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he tore apart prototype space suits and astronaut habitats with Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science program. Green, the space agency’s one-time “Mars czar” and current overseer of robotic solar system exploration, also served as a consultant on The Martian. NASA checked off on every aspect of the set and script. And that came as a relief to Max.

He used real NASA blueprints of an ion-engined Mars crew carrier to make Hermes. Filmmakers turned a six-wheeled industrial crop sprayer into a massive Mars rover that looks like a beefed-up version of the one NASA’s Desert RATS use to play space explorer on test missions in the Arizona desert. The filmmakers drove their rover in the studio and then flew it to Jordan, where they shot Damon romping across the desert.

“I love restrictions because you play off the constraints,” Max says. “If you have no constraints, it’s just a big white canvas. Where do you start? But if they give you rules and limits, it’s easier, and so within that you find your aesthetic.”

Buzz Lightyear gets sexy

Perusing The Martian’s costume room feels like being let loose in the bowels of the Smithsonian. Space suits crusted and baked with red sand hang on coat racks next to astronaut exercise attire and hulking white extravehicular activity suits. The spaces in between are cluttered with more common clothes, giving the wardrobe a Space Age thrift store sort of feel. In the film’s final days, helmets, gloves, and hats are pulled from shelves and neatly packed up into boxes in case they’re ever needed again.

I’m told this is a common Hollywood practice. Nothing is discarded, lest someone makes a sequel, or six.

NASA still doesn’t know exactly what a mission to Mars will look like. And that’s given filmmakers plenty of room for interpretation. Janty Yates is a longtime member of director Ridley Scott’s crew and an Academy Award winner for Gladiator. When she first started designing costumes for The Martian, she says she saw herself as a facilitator and not an inventor.

With help from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s space suit curator, Valerie Neal, she pulled together “Bibles” of all the potential Mars suits and settled on Z-2 — NASA’s current prototype. Yates calls it the Buzz Lightyear, and it looks a lot like someone plopped a space helmet onto the Pillsbury doughboy. It’s dorky. Scott rejected it outright. Instead, they took the minimum size possible for life support and ran with it.

“We basically invented this space suit, which is far more linear, far more elegant, and I think quite sexy,” Yates says.

They added creases. They tightened it. And they made the suit more comfortable for actors to live in eight or 10 hours a day through background breaks and meals thanks to breathable fabrics and cooling suits. The suits had to be kept clean during human-made martian sandstorms with a decidedly more low-tech solution.

“We built these huge great catacomb clown trousers and clown tops that covered them because we were only budgetary allowed nine,” she says. “Everybody was on pins and needles because of that disgusting set, which is stunning when we first saw it — ‘Oh my God, we’re on Mars.’ But then it’s ‘Oh my God, it’s in the atmosphere.’ Now it’s everywhere.”

The helmets took customization to another level entirely. Glare and lack of lighting means that NASA shots of astronauts in space rarely show faces. That’s not acceptable with actors, or as Yates calls it, “the money.” But they still wanted them to look real.

The Hollywood helmets were assembled from hundreds of parts, both handmade and 3-D printed, from all over the world. The glass was polished to perfection to prevent glare. Then, those parts all had to slide together flawlessly.

“You get it, and you have to throw it against a wall 20 times a day and still expect it to work,” says Michael Mooney, associate space suit costume designer.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Making Mars real

I get the sense that despite NASA’s armada of real spacecraft across the solar system, Green enjoys working on this fake Mars mission too. The no-nonsense bureaucrat started at the space agency fresh out of grad school in 1980 and made his way up through the ranks, writing hundreds of scientific and technical articles along the way.

Green says he realized the Red Planet wasn’t real for people after astronaut Stanley Love asked him to watch an online talk about traveling to Mars. At the end of the video, Love points to a Hubble image of that planet and says, “Let’s go to Mars.”

“It’s like saying you’re going to take a vacation on Earth,” Green says. “It has mountains. It has valleys. It has an enormous diversity in its climate and its activity and seasons. It has polar caps. And then I realized: It’s not real to him. That’s what the book does, it makes it real by going there and saying, ‘Here is what Mars is like.’”

Not long after that realization, Green met with NASA Johnson Space Center director and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa. The scientist told Ochoa she had to read The Martian. She did. And the book is now “required reading” at Johnson, home of NASA’s human space exploration program. Ochoa even liked it so much that she invited the author out for lunch and a tour.

Eventually, she made her astronauts available to the cast and crew. Actress Jessica Chastain, who plays NASA Commander Melissa Lewis, spent days at Johnson shadowing real-life astronaut and chemist Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

From geek to supergeek

In an ironic twist for a man who concocts NASA heroics, Weir, a self-proclaimed science geek, is scared of flying. So he reluctantly refused when Scott invited him to Budapest. Instead, I interviewed Weir via Skype in his rather ordinary-looking home where his cat, Jojo, jumped onto his desk as we chatted.

Generous tax incentives and world-class facilities drew filmmakers to Budapest, Hungary, home of Buda Castle (shown here). While much of the movie was shot in soundstages, some of the city's incredible buildings also have cameos. For example, the national concert hall serves as a stand-in for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Eric Betz

Weir says he only broke his no flying rule for the trip to Houston. And sitting at a cafeteria lunch with Ochoa, he heard the kind of stories that would make even a suddenly famous writer blush. NASA astronauts told him they love his book and called it “98 percent correct.” He got the VIP treatment.

Instead of sitting in a cubicle working all day, Weir says he now gets to hang out with astronauts and celebrities. The son of a particle physicist, Weir worked for 25 years as a computer programmer, helping code everything from word processors to games like Warcraft II. He took three years off from programming in the late ’90s to chase writing full time but failed to land a contract or even an agent. However, the evolution of the Web allowed him a creative outlet to post his comics and serials.

But Weir’s life didn’t start to change until late September 2012. That’s when he posted The Martian on Amazon.com for the site’s minimum price — 99 cents. For years, he’d been writing the book and posting it to his website, galactanet.com, one chapter at a time. He also sent the novel out to 3,000 email subscribers who gave the computer programmer eager feedback.

“It was cool because they egged me on, and then also they’re all science-minded geeks like me, so it was awesome because they’d point out anything that was wrong,” Weir says. “I called them beta readers.”

But Weir says he never expected his book to be publishable. Then, when the story was done, that core fan group asked for a reader-friendly version, and he self-published it to Amazon without a second thought.

That’s when things got crazy. The book quickly climbed through the top-seller ranks. An agent lured him in. The movie exclusivity rights sold to Twentieth Century Fox. And The Martian became a New York Times best-seller, where it’s remained for 42 weeks and counting.

“It’s like people are contacting me through the Internet telling me my dreams are starting to come true,” Weir says. “I thought it might be a scam until they started sending checks.”

It wasn’t long before Weir was talking with writer and director Drew Goddard (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods) as he crafted the screenplay. Damon agreed to star in the movie. Then, when Goddard dropped out to make the new Spider-Man spinoff, Scott signed on to direct.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

The secret language of Ridley Scott

Back in Budapest, Damon enters a decidedly dingy VIP room wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. His hair is ragged, grown out with extensions. “I think we’re on [sol] 547,” he says of his unkempt beard — a sol, or Mars day, is 39 minutes longer than an earthly one. “I’m living on Mars time.”

The movie is part Apollo 13 and part Castaway — it’s also hard not to conjure up Damon in Saving Private Ryan — but unlike those films, Damon’s character has a well-developed sense of humor about the experience. And beyond the difficulties of a one-person dialogue, the actor says his biggest challenge was capturing the hilarious aspects of the book without making his character look glib or like he didn’t care if he survived or not.

“Ridley and I talked from the beginning about how we wanted to preserve all that humor, but also not lose all the stakes,” he says. “Especially when we got here and we saw the set that Arthur [Max] had built.”

Last December, NASA launched The Martian’s screenplay cover into space on board Orion, which could someday carry actual astronauts to Mars. The title page features Ridley Scott’s hand-drawn sketch and an often quoted line from the movie.
Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

The pair put considerable effort into keeping the true terror for the character. “Or else it’s just a popcorn kind of whiz-bang he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience,” Damon says.

This devotion is what defines a Ridley Scott epic — even the unsuccessful ones. But Scott needs his sci-fi return to be a hit. His latest attempt, Prometheus — an Alien prequel — got a chilly response from fans. However, on this stage outside Budapest, it’s clear his fellow filmmakers don’t see any need for Red Planet redemption.

It’s late on the final day of filming, and a stunt double for Damon is mounted in a space suit as cameras shoot and reshoot the film’s final action sequence, titled “The Final Rescue.” It’s easy to lose track of someone amid the chaos of a movie set. Not Scott. He barks out commands to the crew, forcing them to repeat scenes ad nauseam until he sees what he’s looking for. No one gets upset by the lashings.

“It’s a Ridley Scott movie whether it’s ancient world, present day, or future,” Max says. “He always wants there to be a logic driving the story and great attention to detail. Once you learn the secret language of Ridley Scott, you can do any period with him.”

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Martian manifest destiny

Green, the former Mars czar, says NASA employees love The Martian not only for its devotion to realism, but also for the heroics Mark Watney embodies. For many Americans, NASA post-Apollo is an $18 billion bureaucracy stuck in low Earth orbit. That’s not how its employees see themselves.

“NASA does miracles all the time,” Green says. “It’s unbelievable what we do. I’m always in awe, and I’ve lived it for 35 years of my career. I keep getting surprised by how resourceful our people are.”

“It’s one of those things that make this agency special and important for the nation,” he adds. “We’ve got to be thinking about colonizing the solar system. A single-planet species is not going to survive — the dinosaurs didn’t. They didn’t have a space program.”

And increasingly, NASA is using pop culture to make a play for American heart — and purse — strings. Bert Ulrich is NASA’s guy in Hollywood. If a filmmaker wants to use a NASA logo, they go through him. Ulrich says a flood of recent mainstream movies and documentaries have planted the space agency in a new golden age.

“I haven’t seen this upswing in interest in sort of a cultural way before, and I’ve been with NASA for a very long time,” he says.

That rockstardom for NASA science was on full display this summer as Green walked San Diego’s Comic-Con International — the largest convention of its kind in the world. More than 2,000 people filled a hall for discussions with space agency scientists and The Martian filmmakers. Newly named astronaut Victor Glover speculated about the first humans to walk on Mars. And Space Launch System manager Todd May talked about what it will take to get there.

Green tells me all this effort is to reach what he calls “the Mars generation” — millennials who’ve never seen humans leave low Earth orbit. Instead, they were raised on a robust robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

And Green’s work on The Martian has had very real implications for the nonfictional NASA Mars program. He asked Ochoa, his human spaceflight counterpart, to detail him a Johnson Space Center employee for one year. She assigned Rick Davis, a NASA veteran who formerly served as the primary communicator between Mission Control and the International Space Station. Davis was tasked with spearheading a list of places to put humans on Mars. That way, NASA can tell the public “here’s what the real sites look like, and here’s why we’re looking at them,” Green says.

In October, NASA will host the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for human missions to Mars at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas. Green says it’s very likely the places they choose will be where future Mark Watneys land and begin the next step in the evolution of humankind.

There will be no little green men. No robots with a taste for blood. But there will be the same NASA audacity that once took 12 Americans to the surface of the Moon and returned every last one of them safely.

“The solar system is ours. Let’s take it,” Green told me recently without a hint of hollowness. “And there’s no question, the first place we should be going is Mars.”

For now, we’ll have to settle for watching the Red Planet through rose-colored 3-D glasses.

Eric Betz is an associate editor of Astronomy. He’s on Twitter: @ericbetz.