Away: Netflix takes us to Mars

When science fiction shows us the future, it should at least try to use the science and engineering we already know. They should show us something that has a chance of being real – particularly when it’s something that may happen during our lifetimes. But the Netflix serial Away takes us on an imaginary trip to Mars and misses science as well as engineering and common sense. Maybe I should be OK with vigorously using a hammer to fix plumbing problems, but they don’t even bother to get the rudimentary science real, either.

No self-respecting psychologist would let the commander fly with the psychological situation presented or pick a crew with the glaring personality deficiencies, existing animosities, and emotional ties of Away that couldn’t stand years of isolation from the rest of humanity. For a multi-year mission so far out of touch, it would only make sense to get specialists married to their work rather than split up a family with teenage children and expect them to cope with years of being mostly on the other side of the Sun. Having specialists makes each member of the crew responsible for a particular part of the mission; their roles well-defined and undisputed and their secondary (backup) roles also well-defined, apprentice/helper to one or more and mentor/colleague/commander to others. The relationships need to be strongly bonded somewhat like a Marine squad.

As close as the Moon is to the Earth, there’s still a delay in two-way communication which is (again) missed in the Away series. It takes 1.28 seconds for a question to get to Earth, at least .44 seconds of human response time and another 1.28 seconds for a reply to get back. There should be a delay of more than 3 seconds between each Earth-Moon communication. The directors missed this fact in either ignorance or an attempt to make the larger time lag in later episodes more dramatic.

Because they used water as a shield, there’s plenty of water available to the crew in Away’s fictional Atlas spacecraft. Recycling it at rates nearing 100% isn’t complicated and doesn’t require complicated machinery. To have the lack of water be the unsolvable problem isn’t even remotely possible unless there’s a leak. The Mars crew losing water would, of course, mean they had until the next solar flare to stay healthy because their shield would be gone.

But where the creators of Away really missed was in the physics and logistics. Had they followed through on the plan to rendezvous between Earth and Mars with a rescue mission, both crews would have been stranded in space for many years rather than waiting on Mars for Earth’s shorter and quicker orbit to bring it closer to Mars in its next orbit.

The physics of Mars flight is that of increasing the distance from the Sun while speeding up to a longer orbit around the Sun. The “slingshot” around Mars is a small gravity assist which uses the engine burn for the entire time, with enough fuel to slow down to match the speed of Mars around the Sun and go into orbit around Mars and land or start back down toward where Earth was. The problem is that the Earth has a shorter track around the sun, so it won’t be there, no matter how much fuel or extra crew and spacecraft you throw at the problem. Once you get to Mars, the only sensible way back is to wait until the Earth is going to be in its orbit at the position and orbital speed you will reach after you decrease speed and travel sunward into the path of Earth’s smaller and shorter orbit. OK, it’s not entirely intuitive, but that’s the way the real world works. There is an opportunity to travel efficiently from Earth to Mars only once in every 260 days and another unsynchronized but similar window of opportunity to leave Mars and travel to an orbital speed and path where the Earth will be when you get there. All other launch times must expend fuel to go faster than needed and then expend the same amount of extra fuel to slow down later to match a place, time and speed in an earlier part of the orbit and, of course, the extra fuel adds to the fuel needed for the trip. Alternatively, you could go much slower and wait for Mars to come around again, adding at least another 260 days to the trip. Just waiting for the next “window” of opportunity works better than anything else. And, talk about being on your own, THAT is the REALITY of travel to Mars. On the other hand, the problem of having spare parts and redundancy is a much easier problem to solve and there are two solutions to it: take a spare spacecraft with you and park a third unmanned spacecraft on Mars 26 months earlier manufacturing fuel for the return trip home.

A diagram (from the internet) of how a flight to Mars would work
Mars is moving a bit faster than Earth but taking more time to complete its orbit.

The rendezvous with a rescue craft (matching solar orbit speeds AND positions) isn’t even a possibility besides being risky and stranding BOTH spacecraft for years, acting like the ninth planet halfway between the orbits of Earth and Mars and completely out of synchronicity with the position of either IF such a rendezvous were possible. They would need to wait far longer than completing their mission and it would take an order of magnitude more fuel for the crews of both spacecraft to get anywhere near Earth’s orbit at a time when she happens to be there. Fuel added to the weight adds to the fuel need to propel the spacecraft and, if you work out the physics, it becomes absurd quickly.

The sensible plan for flight to Mars that’s been in the real world for decades is to land the unmanned habitat/backup/fuel manufacturing vessel and have it up and manufacturing fuel and oxygen before the first manned flight ever takes off. Current plans also involve several working spy/communication satellites orbiting Mars as well. We will be able to know what happened to the habitat/return vessel before people ever take off through both telemetry and visibility from just above Mars’ thin atmosphere.

The design of the Atlas spacecraft leaves a lot to be desired as well with a whole lot of unnecessary weight, machinery and complication. The artificial gravity part of the plan must be there because astronauts lose bone density and muscle without gravity. Prolonged weightlessness would incapacitate the entire crew! Take an identical backup spacecraft and tether the two once they have both blasted off and gained speed to get up into the path of Mars. Then spin them around each other. You have redundancy as well as simplicity. This plan could keep them oriented so that all sides of both spacecraft would be warmed by the sun equally and this could sustain an artificial gravity without all the other stuff. When they were near Martian orbit, they could delink and leave one craft in orbit and have remote control bring it down if needed or send up one of the two grounded vehicles to refuel the orbiter so as to have a completely refueled craft in orbit, thus having three vehicles, any two of which could provide passage back once necessary fuel is created and Earth gets to an optimal orbital position relative to Mars.

Redundancy is safety. There is no way a self-respecting engineer in NASA would knowingly allow the backup water processing plant to be different or inferior — especially after the problems getting the Apollo 13 crew’s CO2 down to manageable levels because the shapes of the filters for the lunar lander were different from those in the Command Module whose power system had been destroyed.

And why the name Atlas?? The Atlas rocket was around in the early days of the space race. Why not pick a name not already in use and associated with the god Mars like Juno (his mother), Romulus (his son), Ancile (his shield) or Aithon (one of his horses)?

I realize that this is part soap opera and crazy problems that make for something more watchable (superficially) than science and technology, but if they had gotten retired NASA people to collaborate with young scientists and engineers, this could have been a great way to show how interesting science could be. Instead, they created just another hokey soap opera with no learning or understanding taking place. Despite all the work, they didn’t capture an audience.

There’s a reason for STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). It’s our future as individuals, as a nation and as a world. Yes, we must be able to get along, but we must find ways to do things better. My light bulbs are seven times as efficient as the ones used 20 years ago and vastly superior to the lighting sources used before Edison’s lab perfected the incandescent light bulb less than 150 years ago. And they lower A/C costs as well as lighting costs. We have mobile phones, personal computers and an internet that run at data rates unthinkable when I got a Computer Science degree a mere 50 years ago. That’s what technology can do! Solar panels and energy storage are the coal and oil of the future and need to be further perfected, made easily and provide even more efficiency! Humans have only been at science and technology for a little over 300 years! Think of what wonders our great-great-grandchildren might accomplish if not misled by television’s drama, conflict and irresponsible ignorance!!

I see this same problem all over my society – people think this stuff is too difficult to understand and our information sources don’t often take the time or make the effort to conform to the scientific realities of life. Many, if not most of us, long for mythical, Biblical, mystical or Medieval times when we weren’t chained down to reality or burdened with truth. They treasure an imagined closeness with our Creator while completely disregarding the rules He built into the fabric of His Creation.

Science fiction has an obligation to the public to at least try to get the science part right. To mislead a generation of young viewers into believing nonsense is an incredible disservice to the next generation which will be creating the many discoveries and disciplines to actually make this trip to another planet.

Had our society not lost faith in science and turned to a false sense of security by spending vast amounts of money and technology on warfare, we would have already made this trip. I subscribe to the notion that every single person on the planet would have been better off if NASA had gone to Mars rather than its nation investing massively in warfare and bullying weaker countries for short-term economic advantages and obscenely overwhelming military superiority that created the conditions which sparked the events of 9/11/2001 and other suicide bombings in or from or in sympathy with the colonized countries of the world.

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