One evening in early November 2017, I met Andrew Hinderaker at a restaurant in Houston called Nobi. Located just down the road from the Johnson Space Center, Nobi offers a fantastic combination of Vietnamese food and a rich, varying selection of draft beer. It’s a classic Houston joint, a fusion of cultures that’s better for it. As such, the restaurant serves as a popular watering hole for the space set.
Hinderaker and a friend of mine named Chris Jones began writing on a television program about a realistic human mission to Mars. “From the start, Chris and I believed that this show should be neither naive nor pessimistic,” Hinderaker explained to me. “We believe there is something ambitious about space exploration, even if the mechanisms that make it possible are often bureaucratic.”
I loved the idea. Then, as now, I’ve covered spaceflight, especially the efforts of NASA, other space agencies, and private companies to extend humanity beyond low Earth orbit. I had thought a lot about the politics and technology that could one day allow a small group of people to travel from Earth to Mars, land on the red planet for a while, and travel back. So Hinderaker and I discussed these issues.
None of this is easy, I explained. Setting up a human mission to Mars will require an incredible amount of funding, several key technologies to mature, and continued support for more than a decade. It will almost certainly require the cooperation of several countries. And current relationships between space agencies in the United States, Russia, Europe, China, India, Japan and elsewhere are complex and evolving.
At the end of our conversation, I congratulated Hinderaker after having finished a few glasses of Belgian beer.
Almost three years later, Netflix released the first season of the television series Away, which tells the story of an international human mission to Mars. Simply put, I thought the show was fantastic. The characters felt real, the politics felt real, and the technology felt real. It’s as if the show’s creator, Hinderaker, along with Jones and the other writers, assessed the state of human spaceflight in 2020, and they’ve done their best to create an optimistic scenario for a decade from now. to set.
Unlike so much science fiction on television and in movies these days, the focus is on Away is not about space battles or explosions or fancy space hardware. This show is first about the people and second about our all too fallible technology. This TV show puts the human in a human space flight.
Some viewers may be put off by a character-driven show that focuses on humans and their complicated relationships, both in space and on the ground. Unlike much of today’s TV, Away moves slowly. The quiet moments are quiet. The long shots linger. There’s plenty of, um, room for the show and its characters to breathe. Where the hell is Mars, you might ask? It’s mostly off-screen, but in the background, moving the story forward.
One of the fascinating things about Away is that it takes an effort to investigate how astronauts will behave independent of ground control. Even during the Apollo missions to the moon, crew members had to deal with communication delays with Mission Control in Houston for just a few seconds. On a trip to Mars, seconds quickly turn into minutes. This gives the crew the freedom to make their own decisions and realize that their actions are beyond the reach of flight controllers on the ground.
A hopeful show
Because of the actions taken on the way to Mars in the show, some critics have said that the five astronauts in Away would never have made it through the elaborate screenings to become a crew member. But I suspect that traveling to deep space for months at a time will have a profound effect on astronauts and lead to more independence. And while the public image of astronauts may be that of superheroes, near-perfect humans, they are all too human, with family issues, egos and weaknesses. (They’re still almost universally awesome, of course.)
There are some really improbable events in Away† The most striking thing for me was the uncertainty about whether the Pegasus supply ship successfully landed on Mars a few weeks before the crew’s arrival. In the real world, this supply ship would have launched and landed safely on Mars before any human crew had ever properly left Earth’s gravity. In addition, there would be satellites orbiting Mars to image the landing site.
But these are minor niggles. Most technology appears legitimate, an evolution of existing systems. If the show doesn’t show enough involvement from commercial companies — it’s hard to see NASA reach Mars without SpaceX, for example — it does the politics of the intergovernmental space agency good. Bottom line: This show is set in a plausible future.
As Hinderaker said in 2017, the show is ambitious. We could all use a little more of that in 2020. Though it seems unlikely now, imagine the United States and China uniting behind a global reconnaissance mission. And so the show shows humanity, with all its flaws and political squabbles, coming together to send astronauts to another planet. It’s something that we’ve never done in our 300,000 years or so as a species on our green planet. But if we’re lucky, it’s something we might experience in our lifetime.
This is the hope I took away Away†
List image by Diyah Pera/Netflix