One of the things I loved most about The Martian was the way they portrayed how the scientists, engineers and astronauts all worked together with determination, passion and humor. I was an aerospace engineer with various NASA contractors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for almost 20 years and I thought the depiction was spot on.
What The Martian got right:
The Martian absolutely got this right. You have all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, etc. all working together in the NASA community. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s just about the science. F=ma in every country and in every religion around the world – and even in space. While I was working with NASA, I personally worked with people from India, Hong Kong, Mexico, Nigeria, Canada and Puerto Rico as well as people from all over the United States. I also worked with several people with disabilities – one in a wheelchair, one with a feeding tube, one was legally blind, one had partial paralysis and one had a stutter. I would train 22 year old new hires straight out of college while I shared my office with a woman in her 70’s. None of that stuff mattered. Everyone just worked together and did top notch work.
The depiction of the camaraderie at NASA as well as their collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Chinese Space Agency is very accurate. The Space Industry is one big happy family. You have to understand that astronauts train for years together before a mission – you get very close – both the astronauts and the ground support personnel. They are not just “astronauts“ up there, they are your co-workers, friends, the parents of your children’s classmates, the coach of your son’s pee wee football team, etc. Everyone works together in the name of science, exploration and safety.
International cooperation is also very important. We have to share the knowledge and share the expense of traveling to and exploring space. The purpose of exploring space is to benefit all of mankind, not just some of us. In fact, in a mission to Mars, like the one depicted in the movie, it is much more likely that the crew would be international.
There is one thing for sure; the people who work at NASA do it for the love of space. Houston is also a hotbed for the oil and gas industry whose engineers earn much higher salaries than those in the space biz. If you are an engineer or scientist working on a government contract, I guarantee it is because you love the work and not because you love the money.
The humor in The Martian was very believable. Once you work with people so closely for so long, like the crew of a mission does, your team becomes like family. It is almost like a sibling relationship – good-hearted ribbing and all. Teasing and joking around are definitely par for the course.
The “Elrond” joke is was so perfect. In the movie, a secret meeting to discuss a controversial theory to save Matt Damon’s character is called “Elrond” after the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Ring. Some of the characters laugh, but one needs to have the reference explained. It’s true, there is a very high percentage of Lord of the Ring fans in the NASA community – but not everyone is onboard.
What The Martian got “wrong”:
I put wrong in quotation marks, because I wouldn’t really want to say The Martian got it wrong as much as they got it right – at least in the dream version of NASA.
I know the NASA budget may seem huge, but they do a lot with it – Mars rovers, international space stations, deep space probes, etc., but building lavish offices and spectacularly beautiful spacecraft is not part of it. It all goes to the science, engineering, testing and safety. I remember getting my ethics training when I was a new hire. We learned that we were allowed to accept gifts of a trivial nature (for example, ballpoint pens and stress balls with company logos), but nothing more than that. If we received a perishable item (like a fruit basket), we must donate it to a food shelter. I never understood that if the rules are so strict for government contractors, how it is that congress gets to enjoy so many perks? Anyway, that’s beside the point.
Here are some pics to illustrate the differences.
The Martian’s NASA Headquarters:
The Real NASA Headquarters (in Houston):
Inside The Martian Spacecraft:
Inside the International Space Station:
I always say that my favorite thing about being an engineer is working with engineers. They are good, honest, shoot-from-the-hip, hard-working people. No drama. No cut throat antics. No attitude. Just friendly and laid back.
If you love space, check out these photos from Astronaut Scott Kelly who recently returned from a year on the International Space Station:
For a sample of some NASA humor, check out this parody of “Gangnam Style” filmed by a NASA intern in 2012. The people in the blue jumpsuits are actual astronauts and the Director and Deputy Director actually make cameos toward the end.