“The Martian” Is A Hacker’s Dream – In Space

You’ve probably seen the ads and heard the buzz about the movie “The Martian”, where a Mars astronaut, Mark Watney, is left on the planet and presumed dead. You may have read our previous article about the eponymous book by Andy Weir. That article wondered if the movie would do justice to the book.

It did.

In summary, Watney survives by creating one glorious, but realistic, hack after another. NASA and the other astronauts support him by coming up with some marvelous hacks along the way. One, encompassing the entire spaceship containing the surviving astronauts, is developed by The_Martian_film_posterthe ship’s Captain, Melissa Lewis. Okay, that one may not be totally realistic but it’s mind blowing.

Reading about the hacks is one thing. Seeing them on the screen adds another dimension. Matt Damon, as Watney, mixing his own waste with water to fertilize potatoes is an image you cannot create in your mind’s eye.

One usual trick Hollywood plays is to switch the actions of minor characters to the major characters. That leaves out the ‘little guy’ in the backroom who frequently has the great idea. Often that’s us. Here they kept the woman who first saw Watney moving equipment on Mars and the astrophysicist who, well, I won’t spoil it, saved the day.

For hackers, this movie should be paired with “Interstellar”, because of their fidelity to science. “The Martian” contains actual NASA technology and plans for Mars missions. “Interstellar”, well, what can you say bad about a movie that originated in the mind of Caltech Theoretical Physicist, Kip Thorne. The science in this movie is so real Thorne wrote an entire book describing it, and managed a few scientific papers based on the research required to accurately present the black hole.

It’s a wondrous trend to see science fiction movies based on real science and not being dumbed down to the point of insult. You know it has to be good if XKCD did a comic. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t do a ‘hack’ job on either of these movies.

Movie trailer after the break.

41 thoughts on ““The Martian” Is A Hacker’s Dream – In Space

    1. How Watney ends up stranded on Mars hinges on one design flaw that wouldn’t happen. The Mars Ascent Vehicle’s landing stage would be designed to automatically secure it to the ground, or collapse its landing legs so it would sit firmly on the ground. Other possibilities, drop a fabric skirt down then dump resin on to stiffen it, or how about a flexible ring that’s inflated with expanding foam?

      So many ways to block air from getting beneath the MAV and/or widen its base so that absolutely nothing it’s possible for the thin Martian atmosphere to throw at it could ever blow it over. It would take one hellaciously fast wind on Mars to wiggle anything heavier than a sheet of paper. http://www.space.com/30663-the-martian-dust-storms-a-breeze.html

      It wouldn’t be engineered to withstand the highest *recorded* (plus a bit) wind speed on Mars (unless Airbus designed it) it would be made to withstand the highest possible wind speed/force.

      Most stories have at least one dumb thing baked in so the rest of the tale is possible. Better stories don’t hinge on one such flaw. Even better than that are stories that make you think a Dumb Thing to Advance the Plot has happened but show how it wasn’t some improbable or impossible event or the character who did the apparently dumb thing had some valid reason for acting that way.

      So, how would you realistically get Watney left behind since there’s no way a Martian windstorm would be ripping loose or tipping over equipment that would be built rugged and stable enough that could not happen?

        1. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2003/09jul_marsdust/
          >All dust storms on Mars, no matter what size, are powered by sunshine. Solar heating warms the martian atmosphere and causes the air to move, lifting dust off the ground.

          >Because the martian atmosphere is thin–about 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level–only the smallest dust grains hang in the air. “Airborne dust on Mars is about as fine as cigarette smoke,” says Bell. These fine grains reflect 20% to 25% of the sunlight that hits them; that’s why the clouds look bright. (For comparison, the reflectivity of typical martian terrain is 10% to 15%.)

  1. I just saw the movie last night, and have read the book twice prior, and watched as many interviews as I could (although Andy Weir, interviewed by Adam Savage, is the best of them all by far) and I have to say that I thoroughly loved the movie. There were a couple of tropes that were annoying [SPOILER ALERT] (everyone yelling in happiness before the rocket even reaches orbit was a bit stupid, IMHO) and overdone (ie, mars weather) but overall I really enjoyed it and would see it again in a heartbeat. There were some story compromises to cram an 8 hour movie into 2 hours, and they were reasonable. And I WANT one of those rovers. Too cool. Overall, very well done.


    During the setup of hydrazine burner to make water, he explains the history as (trying my best from my memory)…. a bunch of students in a college dorm trying to make rocket fuel/propellant ended up nearly burning the building. But later the school gave them a huge field to keep working on it…

    If that happens this day, the students will be sent to guantanamo bay and labeled as terrorists.

    1. The movie is based on a book by an author who’s day job was programming and had previous experience working at a national lab. The contents of the book were researched for years and verified by fans/scientists as it was being released, chapter by chapter. NASA had nothing to do with the book and very little with the movie other than some thumbs up on the designs.

      There are some small caveats and mistakes, but generally everything is spot on.

    2. NASA wasn’t involved in the original writing at all, although I understand the author took feedback from scientists who contacted him with mistakes in the book’s science, probably including some from NASA. He also mentioned in an interview that he was aware there were a few science problems he hadn’t corrected, but those were ones where he couldn’t fix them without having to re-write the plot (the lander not blowing over, the making of water bringing the atmospheric temperature high enough to kill him in the habitation module)

      1. Dr. Thorne’s book about “Interstellar” is good because he labels the science in it as known, plausible, and far fetched. The known being what science is pretty sure won’t change, at least without some major upheaval in current thinking. Plausible is what current theory says is likely, but there may be alternatives. As an example, there was some chance that the Higgins Boson might not be found 10 years ago. Everyone expected it to be but there was a chance it wouldn’t. And the final category is pretty much fiction but sounds really good. Any hard science fiction is a mix of those three categories. We accept FTL without a lot of explanation in hard SF, movie and book, but it actually falls into the far fetched category given our current state of knowledge.

        The ‘willful suspension of disbelief’ is different for each of us. The movie and book let me suspend mine.

        ‘squid – replied to your message since we seem to be mainly in agreement.

  3. I read about 1/3 of the, uhm, book? I would not have if I had know it is a very long blog with email inserts, but that may become the literature of this generation – if some tweets and FB postings are added. The hackerating was good. I did a few calculations myself to become convinced they needed to run a full atmosphere in ships and habitats. I could not see a reasonable way to run at say half an atmosphere and keep O2 partial pressure where you need it without screwing up other things. Apollo ran pure O2 and 1/3 atmosphere but that is not so good for months or years. I didn’t get to the forces exerted by a Martian storm. That atmosphere is so close to a vacuum that I’m surprised it can move dust. But push over a spacecraft with fuel and passengers on board? Experts chime in?

    1. The author himself admitted that the storm was unrealistic. He went ahead with it because he wanted to to be a man vs. nature story, with nature getting in the “first punch.” That’s why he went with the storm instead of some other (more plausible) man-made disaster.

  4. Nitpickery aside. This is by far the best film to hit the screen in the last two decades. I found it so much more exciting to watch those potatos grow, than waching vin diesel shoot out the window of a fast moving car again. And that swirling orange nylon umbilical mayhem near the end, beats any movie-kiss hands down.

  5. Legitimate science far from it.

    Take a minute to educate yourself on hydrazine.

    Symptoms of acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, coma in humans. Acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver, spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine.[42]

    LD50 200ppm the boiling point is 114 degrees C, when dropped onto an iridium catalyst most of it will vaporize do to the exothermic reaction. WhattheFney the botanist would have been dead in a matter of hours.

    More dissapointing hollywood bullshit, such a shame when apollo 13 was so good.

    1. The book had it right. He used a fully enclosed box specificly for the reasons you stated. The movie messed up several things that are fully explained and done correctly in the book.

  6. Watched it last night; I thought it wasn’t bad overall, but I did wonder where the massive amount of oxygen for all that water came from, why he used soil at all (urban farming is commonly done in inert substrates like insulating foam, I think), but above all: where did all the CO2 for the plants come from? Plants need more than just water; there must be a source of carbon! Since only a part of the plant is eaten, the CO2 he would exhale is insufficient.

    Considering mars has frozen CO2, they could have done this somewhat properly. Granted, most of it is at the poles, but at least it would have been adressed.

  7. We’re calling Interstellar scientifically accurate? It was a horrible mess of 5-dimensional space, skimming through blackholes, and love trumping all known laws of physics. Awful.

  8. Okay. Seen the movie… Salt plus Clean water != seawater Any one with a aquarium already knows this. So. Where am I going with this? 5 second explanation…”I’m this worlds best botanist.”

    Did the potatoes have Earth dirt still on it? Because F’all you ain’t getting shit for shit. Nope for shit, literally and figuratively.

    Human shit has bacteria, E. Coli. Yes. Perhaps a good sequence of a ton of different colonies of various others, based on your place of birth, hormones and DNA.

    One things ALL omnivores have in common none shit Nitrogen fixing bacteria. Don’t care if you were gestated/born from IVF and vegan parents, NOT an herbivore. Without green mulch/manure you will a best kill all the potatoes or worst infect yourself with a really foul strain of E.Coli.

    And you still have no nitrogen fixing bacteria.


    5 second explanation “I’m lucky that these potatoes still have REAL earth not DIRT BUT EARTH on them.”

    1. In the book, he’d brought soil samples with him from earth to test manufacturing martian soil and growing plants in it. This isn’t mentioned in the movie.

      And when did seawater get a look in?

      1. >when did seawater get a look in
        Just leveraging an analogy, aquarium setups require a ton of conditioning to support fish…

        >brought soil samples
        That is what I had assumed, however it was more to just address pigs/cats/dogs/us make for very bad fertilizer medium. Albeit, most HaD all here have a fair/good/awesome knack for electronics but there might be some details we may have forgot from earth sciences/biology class.

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