In just its opening weekend, director Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which hit theaters last week, pulled in over $100 million worldwide. The film follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut NASA accidentally left behind on a recent mission to Mars, as he tries to survive on the harsh planet. Scientists have hailed the film as one of the most accurate space-themed science-fiction movies to date, and Watney’s extraterrestrial survival tactics may offer a glimpse into what future astronauts will experience during a real-life mission to Mars — minus the being stranded part, hopefully.

The movie begins with a dust storm that forces a small team of astronauts to abort their exploration mission and head back to Earth. Watney, caught up in the storm, gets left behind. He has no way to reach help, and therefore must find a way to survive inside the team’s Martian habitat laboratory, “The Hab,” which is designed to provide its inhabitants with oxygen and protection from the Martian temperatures and radiation. The catch: The Hab is only equipped with enough food to maintain human life for 31 days, and we soon learn it’ll be years before a group of astronauts will reach Watney. As a result, he says he’ll need to “science the sh--” out of his situation in order to ensure he survives long enough to be rescued.

Before filming even began, Scott spoke with Dr. Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, to make every aspect of the film as realistic as possible. “I got on the phone and spent about an hour and a half answering as many questions as I could,” Green told Medical Daily, explaining that in addition to providing just straight answers both verbal and written, he also took Scott and his crew on a tour of actual Martian habs and real-life space vehicles.

So, how accurate is the film when it comes to a real-world representation of stranded life on Mars? Beware some minor spoilers ahead.

The Essentials

Although we can last weeks without food and days without water, we would die within minutes without air, making the need for oxygen a top priority. In the movie, Watney’s air supply comes from an “oxygenator,” which takes in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and converts it to oxygen. According to Science News, this ultra-cool way of creating oxygen in space is real; known as the Moxie (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment), NASA plans to send it to Mars in 2020 for testing. If all goes well, it will play an integral role in manned missions to the Red Planet in the not-so-distant future.



Water is the just as essential for survival, and last month NASA announced it had found signs of flowing salty water on the Martian surface. The major announcement could mean that in the future, astronauts who actually travel to our closest planetary neighbor will have access to a vital water source. While Scott knew about this discovery two months ago, he told The New York Times that it was already too late to make changes to the film’s plot. As a result, there’s no such water source available for Watney. Instead, he had to make due with The Hab’s water reclaimer, which recycles water the team originally brought to Mars, as well as their own urine, into potable water.

The film’s water reclaimer is based on a real-life NASA tool known as a water recovery system (WRS). Located in the International Space Station (ISS), the WRS essentially mimics Earth’s water cycle but on a much smaller scale — it also recycles urine and other used water onboard the ISS to help create a sustainable water supply. The system distills astronauts’ urine, combines it with other wastewater, and then puts it through a stringent disinfectant treatment known as high temperature catalysis, which removes microorganisms, free gases, and solids like hair. The end product is a drinkable water that’s probably cleaner than most drinking water found on Earth.

With air and water taken care of, our stranded astronaut now needs to eat. Watney, a botanist, is able grow potatoes on the Martian surface with potatoes the astronauts had originally stored for a Thanksgiving feast. Watney needed much more water than there was to farm the potatoes, so he created it with rocket fuel that had undergone various chemical reactions. While humans have yet to grow anything on the harsh martian surface, this idea isn’t too far-fetched, since astronauts aboard the ISS managed to grow red romaine lettuce in space just this year. According to NASA, space crops like these will help give astronauts essential vitamins and other nutrients during long missions, such as, say, an actual trip to Mars.

Dr. Gioia Massa, a NASA scientist who researches how to grow plants in space, told Medical Daily that growing plants on Mars would actually be easier because of the planet’s gravitational pull. “Watering plants with no gravity is very tricky, but with some gravity that process would be much simpler,” she wrote in an email to Medical Daily. However, there would still be other challenges that make growing crops on Mars more difficult than on the ISS.

“One of the biggest challenges will be getting sufficient light to the plants,” Massa said, adding that, due to Mars’ position to the sun and its tendency to have dust storms, this would be more difficult to achieve. The harsh surface on Mars is also likely to contain many chemicals that are toxic to plant life. “I believe that all of these challenges are surmountable but they will take many years of research and preparation [to] get things figured out.”

Dr. Anna Lisa Paul, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, said that aside from the toxins that may lie in the soil, The Martian’s depiction of growing plants on Mars is believable. “It is very likely that, like Mark Watney, you could use the native regolith (Mars “soil”) to support plant growth if it is watered and fertilized (although you may need to take out the harmful chemicals first),” she wrote in an email to Medical Daily.

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Growing plants on Mars is not as far-fetched as you may believe. YouTube/The Martian

Mental Health

Staying alive is only one aspect of Watney’s adventure. The astronaut also has to keep his sanity despite experiencing extreme isolation. Studies have shown that isolation is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. Chronically lonely people, for example, are far more likely to have high blood pressure; develop dementia, Alzheimer’s, and infections; and die early. Extreme isolation, like what some prisoners might face, can cause an array of mental health conditions too, including decreased mental capabilities, wide-ranging emotional changes, anxiety, paranoia, and visual and auditory hallucinations.

That said, it’s unimaginable what being isolated over 140 million miles away from the closest human would be like. Yet, despite being alone for an extended time with no direct human contact, Watney is more or less able to keep his cool. Andy Weir, author of the book from which the movie is adapted, told Ars Technica that he purposely avoided discussing Watney’s emotional distress because he “didn’t want the book to be a deep character study of crippling loneliness and depression.”

Purposely omitting the consequences of extreme isolation may initially seem like an entirely inaccurate depiction. However, upon further investigation, it becomes clear that the author and movie writers weren’t completely wrong when depicting the astronaut’s emotional health. Along with their intelligence, training, and expertise, astronauts like Watney are specifically chosen to embark on missions like these because of their above-average displays of mental and emotional resilience as well as their sense of determination.

“I see that determination in our scientist and our engineers, and that is an absolutely essential characteristic of our astronauts. Just as important if not even more important than a high IQ,” Green explained.

Even if Watney is deprived of in-person human contact, he is not completely without social interaction; he keeps a daily videoblog of his adventure, and is eventually able to communicate with both NASA and his crew via interplanetary text messages. Although this limited interaction may not be enough for the average human, astronauts are by nature better equipped to deal with emergency situations, such as severe isolation. “They would have better coping skills,” Green explained. “That’s one of the things that NASA looks for in their astronauts.”


It’s not entirely clear what makes some individuals more resilient than others, but experts believe it may be a combination of a personality formed by early life experiences and genetic components. “Stress can actually be good while the nervous system is developing during childhood. It’s called stress inoculation, Steven Southwick, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, who wrote a book on resilience, told The Guardian. “If you experience mastery of that stress… then in the future your neurobiological stress response will tend to be more adaptive, and you’re more likely to be resilient.”

The Martian as a novel was a New York Times bestseller, and in its opening weekend alone, the movie has already demonstrated an ability to do just as well. With its hardline scientific accuracy, star-packed line-up, and thrilling storyline, it is bound to keep even the least scientifically minded viewers on the edge of their seats. More importantly, the fictional story could serve as a very realistic predictor of what our future in space will be like.