Surviving Mars: Putting 'The Martian' to the Test

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Oct. 1, 2015 -- In the opening moments of the new film The Martian, a fierce windstorm hits the red planet. Astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is left on Mars as his crewmates scrap the exploration mission and head home.

That's a bit of a problem for Watney, whose next ride home is years away, if ever. But he's determined to survive, both physically and emotionally.

The film's producers have said that everything that happens in the movie -- with the exception of the windstorm, which was too violent for Mars -- is backed up by science.

We turned to a NASA scientist, a NASA doctor, a psychologist, and a life coach to put those claims to the test.

Note: This story doesn't spoil the movie's ending, but it does offer significant details.

Challenge: Basic Needs

The Mars environment looks hostile, as it should, says Jim Green, PhD, director of planetary science for NASA. He consulted with the movie-makers on the script.

The air there is 95% carbon dioxide, but Damon's character Watney and other crew-members were living in a 90-square-meter canvas structure, or ''Hab," that provided shelter against Mars' extreme temperatures. As long as Watney stayed in the Hab or wore his spacesuit outside of it, he had oxygen.

Unlimited supplies of oxygen are theoretically possible by using technologies that recycle the carbon dioxide to get the oxygen out, says Erik Antonsen, MD, PhD, a scientist for NASA's human research program.

Food and water were another matter. (Until this week, water was thought to exist nearly exclusively as ice on Mars.) In the movie, Damon converts rocket fuel to water to keep a steady supply.

With an adequate power supply, that's possible, Antonsen says, but "likely not an experiment to try at home."

For food, Watney had enough freeze-dried food to last more than a year, but he knows that won't be enough. He realizes he has to figure out a way to grow food in a place with thin soil that's hostile to growth. Luckily, Watney is a trained botanist. A lightbulb goes off, and he runs over to the compartments housing the food and finds the Thanksgiving dinners for the crew. Those meals have real potatoes.

Watney uses them to plant a potato patch inside the Hab. In scene after scene, he tends to the patch, coaxing it to grow. For fertilizer, he uses his discarded poop and that of his crewmates. With steely resolve, Watney says that if he's going to survive, "I'm going to have to science the sh*t out of this."

Human poop can be a good fertilizer to grow potatoes, Antonsen says, but it's not without risks. Something held in check by a person's gut bacteria -- bad bacteria, for instance -- could grow unchecked in the new environment.

Challenge: Emotional Needs

Despite the stresses and the threat of imminent death, Damon's character doesn't lose it. And that personifies a typical astronaut, Antonsen says.

"Astronauts are selected for their resilience, their intellectual aptitude, much like military pilots," he says.

Watney's situation is especially challenging, he says, because astronauts typically maintain motivation via teamwork, both with their fellow astronauts and contact with Mission Control.

But Watney doesn't let the isolation get to him. He begins keeping a video log, a kind of regular diary that he hopes will ultimately get to NASA. His first words when he does connect with Mission Control: "I'm alive! Surprise!"

Watney's wicked sense of humor comes through, over and over. At one point, he says he's the greatest botanist on Mars. In another scene, he rifles through his crewmates' storage bins for music, ridiculing his commander's taste in music when he finds only disco. He wonders: Does she know of any music from this century?

That good-natured ribbing is part of the NASA culture, Green says. It helps ease the stress of running a $1.4 billion program where ''everything we build has to work." "That kind of stress is enormous," he says. "A day doesn't go by in our organization that we don't have really good belly laughs."

Having a good sense of humor also makes people more resilient, experts say.

"Its judicious use frees us up," says Robert Brooks, PhD, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Brooks did not see the movie.

"It's a source of connectiveness with other people," he says, ''and it helps us to be better problem solvers."

Watney also displays other traits of resilient people. He takes responsibility for what happens to him. He's adaptable. He's a problem solver, but he also knows some problems aren't solvable immediately. Resilient people know how to compartmentalize, or focus on the most pressing problem and tune out other stressors, says Michelle Atlas, a life coach in Rochester, N.Y.

The video diary could be another sign of resilience, she says. "The sharing of a traumatic story can be the pivotal distinction between someone who shuts down in depression and cannot cope at all and someone who is empowered by their trauma to become greater and share their gifts with others," she says.

Resilient people also focus on what they have control over, Brooks says. Even they might go through a ''Why me?" phase, he says, but most give up those thoughts quickly and move on.

Doing that moves you into problem-solving mode, he says. "Resilient people feel a sense of purpose or meaning," he says. In Watney's case, that's to get back home.

"The reality is, some people are just born more resilient," Brooks says. "It doesn't mean you can't learn to be." It requires working on and developing the characteristics to help yourself in the long- and short-term.

But it doesn't require being stranded on Mars.

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References
SOURCES: Jim Green, PhD, director of planetary science, NASA. Erik Antonsen, MD, PhD, scientist, human research program, NASA. Michelle Atlas, certified professional life coach,Rochester, N.Y. Robert Brooks, PhD, psychologist, assistant clinical professor of psychology, Harvard Medical School, and author of "The Power of Resilience." "The Martian," production notes.

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