Exclusive: NASA director Jim Green talks about The Martian and better living through radiation

Matt Damon in The Martian

In the upcoming movie The Martian, Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, but he has help from NASA, as well as a scientist named Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Meet his real-world counterpart, Jim Green. 

Green is the director of Planetary Science at NASA (“I manage all the satellites at Mars and all the rovers,” he told me casually), as well as a consultant on the film … which he loved. “Not only is the science really great,” he said, “but the human nature part of it is equally strong. And that’s what makes a great story.” 

I spoke with Green about The Martian, his work at NASA and how to safely handle a radioisotope thermal generator. 

NOTE: This interview took place before the announcement of the discovery of liquid water on Mars.

How did you get involved with The Martian?

In May of last year, Ridley Scott cold-called NASA headquarters, and Bert Ulrich [Liaison Multimedia at NASA, Film and TV Collaboration] tracked me down and said, “Can you talk to Ridley Scott this afternoon at 2 o’clock?” And I said, “The Ridley Scott? Sure. I’ll clear my calendar.” One of my all time-favorite films is Alien. I’ve probably seen it 50 times.  

It was a great opportunity to tell the public what Mars is really like. It’s a harsh environment, but, indeed, it’s survivable.

How much work did you put into this?

At first I spent an hour and half talking to Ridley about ion engines, and isotope power systems, and artificial gravity, and what Mars looks like. Then I took Art Max, who is Ridley’s major set designer, to Johnson Space Center. We spent the whole day touring. Over the next three or four months I answered several hundred questions, and I farmed out the rest. 

[I would have liked to have visited the set, but] by that time I was knee-deep in other things, like getting ready for the Pluto encounter. 

How much is your job like Vincent Kapoor’s in the film?

The scene where Vincent goes in to ask Teddy permission to image Ares Three to me was a very powerful scene, because that’s exactly what I’d be doing. The argument [that] eventually wins over Ted [the NASA administrator] is exactly what I have done in the past. Not exactly in those circumstances, of course.

Are there any other true-to-life moments?

[Protagonist Mark Watney] typifies a lot of what I see in NASA: You can see on his face he’s depressed when he contemplates his own death — and then the science and engineering part of his brain kicks in. You take this huge problem, and it looks absolutely impossible, but you break it up into little pieces, and you methodically work it out. His love of problem solving ... is really quite endemic in NASA.

At one point Watney uses radiation as a heating source. Isn’t that dangerous as hell?

That’s one of the thing that Ridley wanted to know. We handle radioisotope thermal generators, the RTG, all the time. We put them on our rovers. The radiation that comes from it can be stopped by a piece of paper. It’s a special isotope that is just the perfect one for us. If you handle it properly, it can be an enormous benefit. We use it in space all the time. It’s so hot that you put thermoelectrics on it, and the heat produces a voltage difference from which you can charge a battery, and then you run your experiments off your battery.

Watney wraps [the RTG] with the Hab insulation, sticks it in his vehicle, and he’s good to go. That Hab’s going to be a 100 degrees. He’s probably going to have to worry about having too much heat.

Notice any scientific inaccuracies?

One example I noticed right away, and even [author] Andy [Weir] will admit, is that the dust storm is unrealistic. The pressure on Mars is so low that even though the winds can be 120 miles an hour, it’s not enough to straighten an American flag. 

Once Curiosity landed and started taking measurements, we have found out that the Martian soil has a lot more water in it than anyone ever figured. A lot of the water went underground; the area where Ares 3 is actually is at the bottom of an ancient ocean and contains a significant amount of water. We also know there are nitrates in the soil; that’s really good fertilizer. 

In reality, Mark Watney would have had an easier time growing food.

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