The impressive feats of engineering and ingenuity performed by Matt Damon’s character in the upcoming film The Martian might be a work of fiction, but in reality, astronauts are prepared for a variety of worst-case scenarios, including drifting in space.
You’ve dreamt of this since you were just a child. You made it through years of rigorous training, and it’s finally happening. You’ve earned your spot amongst the elite crew of astronauts chosen for a manned mission to Mars.
But something goes wrong. A terrifying dust storm whips up around the landing site and your spacesuit malfunctions. Your crewmembers are forced to evacuate, leaving you behind with no way to get back to Earth, or even to communicate with NASA. What do you do?
If you’re Mark Watney, the hero of the upcoming film The Martian, you rely on your considerable wits, technical expertise, and unfailing optimism to figure out how to survive, without any certainty that you will even be rescued.
The film is based on a 2011 novel by Mark Weir, who fortified his work with extensive research on space travel. In fact, NASA recently released an article on the credibility of The Martian’s technology, comparing it to existing projects that could make a manned mission to Mars possible within the next 30 years.
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But although Weir’s novel and the film adaptation may provide the most realistic portrayals of space travel to date, what would actually happen to a NASA astronaut stranded in space, whether he was lost in zero-gravity or marooned on a foreign world?
NASA is quite confident that astronauts on the International Space Station needn’t fear getting stranded in space during a spacewalk. They are normally tethered to the spacecraft with braided steel that can withstand 1,100 pounds of stress. But if those tethers fail, each astronaut has a fallback in the form of SAFER, short for “Simplified Aid for Extra-vehicular activity Rescue,” a backpack full of nitrogen that can propel him or her back to security.
And if, for whatever reason, the astronaut is unable to operate his SAFER jetpack, the other crewmembers are prepared to initiate a rescue mission. All astronauts receive extensive emergency training that they commit to muscle memory, so that they can act instinctively in case of disaster. Simulations in a large pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory help astronauts practice life-saving maneuvers in zero-gravity.
In addition to physical prowess, the astronauts are equipped with more than enough engineering expertise to jury-rig their way out of a crisis, as demonstrated during the Apollo 13 mission. After an oxygen tank exploded, the crewmembers were able to overcome the challenges posed by limited power, heat loss, water shortage, and lethal carbon dioxide levels.
But what about astronauts forsaken on Mars? We won’t know for sure what NASA plans to do if the events of The Martian play out in reality, but we can hope that they improve on the emergency rescue plan devised for the Apollo 11 mission. Nearly 30 years after the blessedly successful mission, a contingency speech prepared for President Nixon came to light. The speech was basically a eulogy, and revealed that if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had somehow failed to reconnect with the command module orbiting around the moon, NASA would have abandoned them to certain death.
Fortunately, the technological leaps and bounds we have made since the first moon landing will ensure that any castaways might be able to channel Mark Watney and “science the sh*t out of” a would-be catastrophe.