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ASU space students give 'The Martian' a thumbs-up — mostly

Matt Damon stars in "The Martian."
October 02, 2015

First things first: Spoiler alert!

The space survival epic “The Martian” hit theaters Friday to rave reviews from critics – and even some scientists.

Based on the 2011 book by Andy Weir, the story revolves around astronaut Mark Watney, who is left stranded on Mars after a NASA mission. With no hope of rescue for at least three years, he has to figure out how to make water, grow food and hack technology to survive. He’s a walking university who uses math, botany, engineering, chemistry, physics and a lot of duct tape to survive in a place where, as he describes it, “there are nothing but problems.”

“Transdisciplinary” doesn’t even begin to describe this guy.

Two students from Arizona State University’s School of Earth & Space Exploration — both well on their way to becoming Mark Watney themselves — caught the flick at an advance screening Friday afternoon and were ready to discuss the realistic appeal of a film being praised for its devotion to true science.

“There were 100,000 things they got right, but the tires were rubber on the rover. Rubber isn’t going to last when you have temperature fluctuations of 200 degrees.”
— Jake Shellenberger, ASU student

Mark Williamson is vice president of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space at Arizona State University and an undergraduate researcher in the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory.

He said the ships looked a little too much like an Apple store, instead of the cluttered and cramped interiors seen on the actual International Space Station.

“It looked overly aesthetically pleasing,” he said, but added: “In general it was really cool.”

The Mars habitat in the film passed muster for Williamson, who said he has attended lectures on Mars habitat experiments in the Utah desert.

Jake Shellenberger, a space exploration design major in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has an interesting perspective on Watney’s survival techniques. He said he has trained in how to do the type of tech hacks the character pulls off in the movie.

“I thought it was great,” Shellenberger said. “Last semester we had a seminar based on the premise of ‘The Martian’ and it was through a guy at (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). It was listed as a field engineering seminar ... the very first day he said this Andy Weir book is an inspiration.”

Shellenberger took apart remote control vehicles and built a camera timer from the parts in the seminar.  And as part of a student team called Mars Track, he was responsible for coming up with a tire that could last on Mars.

“There were 100,000 things they got right, but the tires were rubber on the rover,” he said of the film. “Rubber isn’t going to last when you have temperature fluctuations of 200 degrees.”

It’s among a small list of things the movie didn’t portray quite correctly.

For instance, both Shellenberger and Williamson thought the Martian gravity was inaccurately portrayed.

 “The gravity is supposed to be a little less than half,” Shellenberger said, comparing it to Earth. “He shouldn’t have had that much trouble knocking the roof off the ship.”

And, “The reduced atmosphere — considering the tarps he was using — they shouldn’t have been blowing around that much,” Williamson said.

At one point in the film Watney digs up a radioactive thermoelectric generator, or RTG, from a shallow hole, buried there because it contains plutonium. The unit is used on flyby missions as a power source, and also keeps instruments warm at operating temperature, according to Williamson.

“He got cold on the rover, and dug up an RTG to warm himself,” Williamson said. “They would have dug it a lot deeper than that.”

Watney makes tons of notes on paper. Shellenberger didn’t think that would fly. Literally.

“The guys had paper – that’s a lot of weight to take with you,” he said. “You’d think they’d be using laptops and [tablets] ... The flip side is they said they sent stuff ahead to meet missions, so that might have been a function of this.”

A few massive dust devils sweeping across the Martian vistas added some drama to the film, but Williamson thought they were a bit too big.

“There are very periodic dust devils that have been observed by different Mars rovers, but the scale and the density of the columns was a little dramatized, but it was pretty cool of them to include them,” he said.

The Martian sky was a bit off as well.

“The sky wouldn’t have been so dark,” Williamson said. “It looked like it was colored blue or greenish. It would either have been red or lightly brown.”

Despite all the hacking and improvisation by Matt Damon’s Watney, one omission irked Shellenberger.

“The movie was a good film,” he said. “The fact they didn’t use the word MacGyver in the movie once was wrong, just as kind of an homage.”

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