LOS ANGELES — Planetary scientist Pascal Lee could give astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a good run for his money when it comes to truth-squadding movie depictions of space missions.
For almost two decades, Lee has been working on the tools and techniques that will be needed for future Mars expeditions, as the leader of the Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. The project, funded by NASA, the SETI Institute and other institutions, provides an earthy analog to the Red Planet’s bleak, cold, dry, isolated environment.
Astronauts could conceivably set up shop on Mars sometime in the next decade or two, and there could be a crewed base on the moon even before that. So Lee says it’s high time for Hollywood to provide a more accurate picture of how such missions would work.
“We actually have not captured the look of a mission yet,” he told me today at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles.
Lee is particularly well-versed when it comes to the pressurized rovers that astronauts will use to get around on the moon or Mars.
For several years, Lee and his colleagues have worked with NASA to test rover designs on Devon Island and more hospitable locales. He’s become so familiar with the hardware that he cringes every time he sees something on the screen that wouldn’t work in real life.
Take “The Martian,” for instance. Lee says he has nothing against the movie, which stars Matt Damon as a astronaut who’s marooned on the Red Planet. But during a session at the ISDC meeting, he pointed out several features that the filmmakers might want to correct if they do a sequel:
Rovers should be roundish: Hardware designers would be asking for trouble if they built a rover with the sharp-angled corners that are shown on the rover in “The Martian.” Rounder rovers are better, because they distribute the pressure on the hull more evenly and reduce the stress on the seams. It’s the same reason why propane tanks look like sausages instead of bricks. NASA’s prototype Space Exploration Vehicle is much more well-rounded than Damon’s dune buggy.
Don’t let all the air out: It’s a bad idea to build the rover’s doors as if you were just getting into a Hummer. Every time the door is flung open, there goes your breathable air. It’s better to build in an air lock. “This way, you never flush out the oxygen,” Lee says.
Keep those dirty spacesuits out of my nice clean rover: It should be a no-no to wear the same spacesuit inside and outside the rover. The lunar surface, and the Martian surface, are notoriously dusty, dirty environments. NASA’s prototype rover has the spacesuits meant for extraterrestrial activity mounted on the exterior of the rover. Crew members climb into the suit through an airlock hatch, close the air lock, and then walk away. They go through the same process in reverse when they return.
Crews should skew older: Lee says the crews for Mars missions should consist mostly of people in their mid-50s to mid-60s, with 58-year-old NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson as the ideal. There are several reasons for that. Each crew member will have to have lived long enough to gain experience in multiple skills. “We’re not talking about jacks of all trades. We’re talking about aces of many trades,” Lee said.
Some researchers have suggested that older spacefliers would be more suited to deal with the heightened cancer risk from space radiation. And Lee said more mature astronauts would tend to be … well, more mature. “They might have a token young person to make fun of, and carry the really heavy stuff,” he joked.
Be careful which way you run: Andy Weir, the author of the book on which the “Martian” movie is based, included an artificial-gravity system in his description of the Mars transfer spaceship, in order to keep his fictional astronauts fit during the long trips back and forth. The concept calls for spinning the spacecraft to create centrifugal force on the edge.
It’s similar to the setup shown on the Discovery One spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where a crew member jogs in artificial-gravity circles. But Lee said it’s important to run the right way. If you’re jogging in the same direction as the spacecraft’s spin, you’ll feel heavier due to the added centrifugal force. If you’re jogging in the opposite direction, you’ll feel lighter. And watch out if you run too fast: “He or she would be able to launch into zero-G,” Lee said.
Now that’s something to see in a movie — or better yet, on a future spaceship.