UChicago scientists critique ‘The Martian’ and discuss real exploration on Mars

The experiences that marooned astronaut Mark Watney had on Mars in the award-winning film, “The Martian,” were similar to those of robot rovers that a University of Chicago scientist helped design.

“Mark was a survivor and the rover is as well,” senior scientist Thanasis Economou told a full house at the Max Palevsky Cinema on Jan. 9, during a panel discussion following a special showing of the film. “The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity was only supposed to run for three months, but it is still going after 11 years of operation,” said Economou, who has been involved with Mars missions for 40 years.

His remarks drew applause from the audience, as did a line in the film in which Watney, after making contact with Earth, said he had heard from one of his professors at “my alma mater, the University of Chicago.”

At the event, presented by Doc Films and Science on the Screen, a panel consisting of Economou, senior scientist at the Enrico Fermi Institute; Edwin Kite, assistant professor in geophysical sciences; and Mohit Melwani Daswani, postdoctoral scholar in geophysical sciences, discussed the scientific accuracy of the film in a session moderated by Andrew Davis, professor and chair of geophysical sciences.

“The Martian” tells the story of Watney, played by Matt Damon, who is left behind on Mars by fellow crew members who believe he died in a violent dust storm. He depends on his optimism and his background in science to survive.

After finding potatoes at the crew’s station, he decides to build a greenhouse and grow crops by cutting them in pieces and fertilizing the Mars dust with excrement. “I'm the greatest botanist on this planet,” he says, a remark that drew laughter from the audience.

The film won a Golden Globe as best picture in musical or comedy category. Damon received a Golden Globe as best actor in the same category. It received six nominations for Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor for Damon.

Economou, who helped develop some of the instruments used on Mars missions, showed slides of robots experiencing the Martian terrain as well as UChicago’s own astronaut, John Grunsfeld, who received a PhD in physics in 1988. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, is a veteran of five spaceflights, including three to maintain or enhance the Hubble Telescope.

Images from various Mars missions showed mountains, plains and craters that were similar to those in the film. Dust from Martian storms covered the solar panels powering the robot many times, but dust devils would sometimes blow away the dust, allowing the robot to continue its work.

“We also got stuck several times in sand dunes and had to figure out a way to move forward,” Economou said. Like Watney, the scientists working with the rover had to use persistence and ingenuity to continue their mission.

Although the portrayal of the planet's terrain and dust storms was accurate, there are other facts scientists know about Mars that were represented incorrectly. Due to a very thin atmosphere, the Martian storms do not have the power to do the damage done in the movie.

“The movie didn’t portray the seasonal cycles on Mars. In winter, it gets very cold and dry ice falls from the sky at high altitudes, something that could damage equipment. This would not be a problem if the landing were at the equator,” Kite said.

Because of the thin atmosphere and the absence of a global magnetic field on Mars, astronauts flying to Mars will be subjected to a large dose of radiation from cosmic rays. “During the cruise flight there is little that can be done, but on the surface of Mars they could seek shelter underground that could provide sufficient protection,” Economou said.

Growing food on Mars would be difficult because Martian soil does not contain organic matter as does the soil on Earth, the panelists said.

Studying samples of rocks and dust from Mars would inform a mission to the planet, but samples have never been recovered and taken to Earth for analysis, Davis said.

But the future of Mars missions is dependent on government funding. NASA will be sending to Mars another lander mission, which was delayed from being launched this year for technical purposes. NASA also will participate in a mission planned by the European Space Agency in 2018, and it has announced plans for a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020.

Davis also pointed out that the Chinese, whose own space program was part of the film also are developing an interest in Mars exploration. “It could be that the first person to land on Mars might not necessarily be from NASA,” he said.