How Realistic Is the Martian? 5 Things It Got Wrong


Recent years have seen a growing trend in realistic science fiction, with the likes of Gravity, Interstellar and the Martian all becoming enormous box-office hits. However, while these movies made a huge effort to portray space travel in as realistic and scientifically plausible way as possible, a suspense of disbelief invariably remains an unavoidable part of making a film entertaining.

Although the practically infinite realm of space provides enormous potential for future generations to explore, the world of entertainment needs to ignore some of the more tedious, boring and complicated areas of space travel. Of course, the result looks far more glamorous than the reality, but it’s not just about keeping audiences interested. There are also technical limitations and budget constraints that movie makers need to think about.

While the Martian is undoubtedly far more realistic and technically accurate than any other fictional film about the Red Planet, it is still far from perfect in this respect. It might be lightyears ahead of the absurdity of cult classics like Total Recall, but it still manages to portray the impossible. To separate the fact from the fiction, consider the following five observations from the movie:

#1. Mars’s Gravity

In the Martian, viewers see astronaut Mark Watney walk around the surface of Mars and inside the habitat in much the same way as he would walk back home on Earth. However, being a far smaller and lighter planet than Earth, Mars has little more than a third of the surface gravity. In other words, a person weighing 150 lb would only weigh 57 lb on Mars and, while they certainly wouldn’t be floating around, the lower gravity would still have a significant impact on life on Mars. As is the case with virtually every space movie to date, the filmmakers neglected to portray this accurately, likely due to the significant technical complications involved.

#2. Dust Storms on Mars

The Red Planet is known for its fierce dust storms that can sometimes cover the entire planet. However, the opening scene, during which Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars, is perhaps the most unrealistic of all. The Viking Lander recorded wind speeds of 60 mph, although higher speeds are undoubtedly possible, perhaps even reaching the 100 mph viewers saw in the movie. However, because Mars’s atmosphere is so tenuous, at less than one percent the density of that of Earth, the wind would barely feel like a light breeze, and it certainly wouldn’t be knocking people over.

#3. The Habitat

In many respects, the habitat in the Martian is incredibly realistic, but real Martian habitats would likely be quite different. Because the Martian surface is bombarded with enormous amounts of stellar radiation due to the facts Mars has no ozone layer or magnetic field, astronauts would need to be very well protected. As such, inflatable habitats on the surface are not likely to be very practical or safe, particularly for long-term use. Martian habitats would be better equipped to protect their human occupants from harmful radiation if they were placed underground or thoroughly covered in a thick layer of soil.

#4. Making Water

Everyone knows water is crucial for all life on Earth, and a lack of a local water source would make the surface of a distant world far harder to colonize. Fortunately, Mars has abundant water beneath the surface and at the poles. Nonetheless, astronaut Mark Watney extracts water from hydrazine rocket fuel by burning it using the oxygen in the habitat. While this is indeed possible, this method of obtaining water on Mars would hardly be practical or cost-effective when it can instead be extracted in vast amounts from the permafrost and ice beneath the surface.

#5. Space Travel

From a technical point of view, the space ship used to travel to Mars was very realistic, as was its journey back to the Red Planet by using a gravity assist from Earth. The only major problem, considering that the film is set in the near future, is that such an impressive space ship is still far beyond the financial and technical capabilities of NASA and other space agencies. A spaceship featuring a rotating torus to simulate gravity would make the journey far safer and more comfortable and, while theoretically possible, it would be prohibitively complicated and expensive to build in the foreseeable future. Presently, NASA has no plans to send anyone to Mars until the 2030s at the earliest.

The Martian is undoubtedly one of the most realistic space movies of all time, and it will hopefully continue to set a precedent for more films to come which revive interest in real space travel rather than that dreamt up by pure fantasists. While the movie certainly isn’t immune from the over-the-top action scenes, it gets far more things right than it gets things wrong. Hopefully, when humanity finally does reach Mars, they’ll look back on the Martian and the Andy Weir novel it was based on without thinking it was laughably inaccurate.

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