Dr Rudolf Schmidt on THE MARTIAN

The new blockbuster film from Fox Films is now on general release on the UK. Time to talk to Dr Rudolf Schmidt, consultant to the film.

When an email arrived in Dr Rudolf Schmidt’s inbox tentatively, and politely, asking whether he might be interested in sharing his considerable expertise of space flight with director Ridley Scott as he filmed The Martian, the eminent scientist admits, that at first he thought it was a joke.

Dr Schmidt is the Inspector General of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a very busy man. ‘Actually, my initial reaction was that I did not trust the e-mail. I got this e-mail saying, “we are working on this movie. Ridley Scott is the director and Matt Damon is the main actor. Would you like to support us?” I thought, ‘this is a joke’’.

‘I thought it was one of those spam emails like ‘please give us your bank details, we want to transfer $75 million into your account.’ So I asked my secretary to find out if it was genuine and who the person was who sent it to me. And it turned out to be absolutely true and was from Mark Huffam, the producer’.

Dr Schmidt knows a lot about space flights to Mars. From 1997 to 2004 he was project manager on ESA’s Mars Express, which sent unmanned craft to the Red Planet. For Scott, who wanted his film to be as scientifically accurate as possible, his knowledge was a huge asset to his production.

Once Dr Schmidt had established that it was a genuine request, he immediately ordered a copy of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, about an astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is stranded on Mars. A little sceptical before he started reading – he is a man of science and not a huge fan of more fantasticl science fiction – he was impressed.

‘My first reaction was, “first I want to read the story,” because I don’t like these super science fiction movies where miracles happen, and all kinds of funny effects happen, and there’s a Fifth Dimension out there suddenly, and all kinds of things’, he recalls. ‘I read it more or less in one go because the story is fascinating. When I had finished the book I said to myself, “It almost could happen that way”.’

He was on set in Budapest – where Scott and his team took over sound stages at the famous Korda Studios to recreate part of their Mars surface – and explains that his job was to point out to Scott anything that he felt was too farfetched. Mostly, he says, the story, set in the not too distant future, stands up. For example, in the film the crew of Ares 3 takes some 140 days to get to the Red Planet.

‘We had discussions in Budapest about, are these numbers realistic, or are they super optimistic? I think it’s all fine, it all works, it all adds up’, says Dr Schmidt. ‘The author, it seems that he has done some computations, because of course it’s a bit optimistic, and it’s all a bit faster than you could do it at the moment. But maybe in 20 years we have more efficient chemical propulsion or other propulsion, so it can be that the numbers which the movie is based on, they could be realistic then’.

In the film, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew are the first humans to land on Mars after an epic space voyage. But when a fierce sandstorm strikes their base camp, Watney is badly injured and presumed dead and left behind as Lewis is forced to abort their mission. Alone on a remote planet, Watney must use all his scientific knowledge to eke out his meagre supplies – including planting and then harvesting his own potato crop.

‘That was a clever idea’, says Dr Schmidt. ‘A very clever idea. I’m not a botanist, and I cannot tell if it would work as easily as it is shown in the movie, but at least as a scientist I find the idea extremely clever’.

When Watney finally works out a way to let NASA know that he has survived, a team of international scientists work round the clock – and against all the odds – to try and bring ‘The Martian’ home. And when Lewis and her colleagues find out that he is alive, they defy orders and risk their own lives to try and rescue him.

He clearly enjoyed meeting the cast and crew and recalls chatting with Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays NASA scientist Venkat Kapoor.

‘For me it was a completely new world. I had never been in contact with actors or moviemakers before. I remember I had a long discussion with one of the actors, Chiwetel (Ejiofor) about how rocket scientists tick. So for him, rocket scientists are new and for me, actors are new. So we came together and exchanged our views. I really enjoyed it’.

The 66 year-old Austrian scientist believes that a manned mission to Mars will happen in the near future. It’s mostly a question of cost, not technology, he says. And, just like in the film, it would be a highly dangerous enterprise.

‘When we launched Mars Express, many journalists asked me (whether a manned mission to Mars will happen soon). My standard answer at that time was that the man or the woman who would fly (to Mars) has already been born. ‘I don’t know how old they will be when they fly – they could be 40, 50, or something like that – it seems that one prefers older astronauts for flying to Mars than younger ones for psychological reasons, and all sorts of other medical reasons.

‘So yeah, maybe in the next 30 or 40 years it will happen. It requires so much money that I wouldn’t dare to make any prediction about when this money becomes available. The whole chain of technology you need, from Earth to Mars, staying on Mars, and then returning from Mars to Earth, is complicated, and it is of course very, very sensitive to failures. I would not say that going there is easier than coming back. Certainly coming back is difficult, for sure, because we have never done it before. We have sent astronauts to the moon and back, but this is minute distance compared with going from here to Mars. So the entire chain has to work’.

He has now seen The Martian and enjoyed the film very much. ‘I saw them making part of the film in Budapest, and now I’ve seen the more or less final cut, and I find it very impressive, the way Matt Damon acts as Mark Watney and how the story evolves – it’s very good indeed. I really enjoyed it’.

And what does he think of the science?
‘Of course there are things that are not realistic. There is the big storm, which does not happen on Mars the way it is described in the book and reflected in the movie. The atmosphere on Mars is extremely thin, so even a super storm would not destroy anything on Mars, but the storm is dangerous because there is very small dust, like cigarette smoke almost, very fine grains, very fine dust particles, and they can block things, or they can block optimal instruments which are required by the ascent rocket when it brings back the astronauts so the storm in itself is very dangerous, or can be very dangerous, but this is, in my opinion properly reflected in the movie. It’s not dangerous in the way that it’s shown in the movie, but the message is the same. Both are dangerous, and for both you would have to abort the mission. So the key message is there – the storm is extremely dangerous’.

But how long would it take a manned mission to get to Mars at the present time?
‘Well at the moment – it depends on many parameters, of course – but at the moment, I would think the fastest in one direction, from Earth to Mars, for instance, would be six months, seven months, something like this. There is this, what they call it ‘buzzing year’ in the movie, or in the book – this electric propulsion – it’s a bit faster. The author has written 140 days I think, in the book, and that’s not unrealistic’.

Would we send craft ahead to land equipment there as they do in the film?
‘Oh, absolutely. Because when people arrive, there must be a safe and sound and properly working infrastructure available, because they get out of the landing vehicle and they need an accommodation. You cannot have everything in time because there will be technical problems, someone has to set it up. So therefore, I think it’s a must, to send equipment ahead (of a manned mission). Even if the Americans will launch (a manned mission to Mars) in the next 20 years, I’m sure, first they must send all the infrastructure there, and when the infrastructure is there, build it up, automatically or by robots, then test it, then comes man’.

And what about the Habitat, did that look realistic?
‘You know, it’s one way of doing things, and it does not mean that in reality they would look the same way, but if you also look behind at the architecture behind it, I think it is sound. There is nothing to criticise about it’.

Is the real problem one of getting back?
‘The whole chain of technology you need, from Earth to Mars, staying on Mars, and then returning from Mars to Earth, is complicated, and it is of course very, very sensitive to failures. I would not say that going there is easier than coming back. Certainly coming back is difficult, for sure, because we have never done it before. We have sent astronauts to the moon and back, but this is mini distance compared with going from here to Mars. So the entire chain has to work’.

Is a manned Mars mission the next great goal for space agencies?
‘Oh yes, yes, yes. What we have achieved so far is that for ten years, maybe 15 years, we have had the space station, which is what, 300, maybe 400 kilometres above us. In cosmic distances, that is nothing. When you’re by the sea for your holidays, you swim out 50 metres – that’s the comparison. We have gone to the Moon something like 12 times. This (mission) is over. We cannot apparently easily do it again, going to the Moon, because if we re-start the programme it takes 15, 20 years, when apparently 40 years ago it started in less than ten years. Politics has changed, mentality has changed, the thinking of people has changed, so it’s all more difficult to know, and we are not willing, maybe, to accept risks. Therefore we have to build a system that is safe and this takes longer and costs much more than the Moon missions in the ‘70s’.

What did you think of Ridley’s portrayal of the surface of Mars?
‘Yeah, the key feature of Mars is that it’s bone dry. It’s cold – temperatures on Mars are between -150 C in the coldest period and maybe it is close to zero on the hottest days on Mars in summer. So its bone dry, very cold and there is radiation, which you can’t see of course – and therefore you can’t see it in the movie – but the climate was accurate. And they filmed in the desert in Jordan and geologically the rock colour is similar to what we have seen in the Mars photographs. I would say that it looks very realistic’.

You have met many astronauts. Did you recognise the astronauts in The Martian?  Mark Watney has a vivid sense of humour even when he’s stranded alone on Mars – did that seem convincing to you?
‘Astronauts are quite often in situations are dangerous to their life. There could be a failure. Sometimes there is a failure in the space station. We had already some small fires on the space station. The first instance when you detect a problem, you think, ‘how dangerous is it? Do I have to get out in an emergency and return back to Earth?’ They always have pressure which is putting high stress on them, so I think the only way to survive for a long period – and of course these stressful periods come and go, they’re not constantly stressed, there are also quiet periods and safe periods without many problems in between – but they have to be aware that in a minute there could be an alarm going off because some major thing goes wrong. How else can you survive other than having some sense of humour? If they were extremely serious all the time, I think these people would be worn out. So yes, to me these were very good portrayals of the type of characters who go into space.

Watney is a botanist. Would a mission like that take a team of astronauts who specialise in different areas?
‘For sure, there would be a group of people selected for different scientific research. Although I’m not sure a botanist would be there in the first instance, because botanists you need when you want to stay longer on the surface, when you have to grow plants to survive, grow your own supply.  Geologists because you want to understand the geology, the stones and rocks and sediment and things like this. A doctor would be part of it for sure, in case of medical problems. A psychologist perhaps, too, in case of mental problems. For sure there will be a group of scientists’.

Why do we, mankind, have such a fascination with Mars?
‘This is a very relevant question, because when I did Mars Express, journalists and general public, they were all fascinated by Mars. I have no real answer. There could be many reasons. Maybe there is still the belief that there are little green men somewhere. In mythology, if you go back to Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome, Mars was God of War – it was the red planet, like blood, so Mars was the God of War and war always stays with us because it is a very bad thing. Also, in the 1930s there was the famous radio broadcast by Orson Welles of The War of the Worlds (by H G Wells). People believed it was really happening and that we were being invaded by real Martians and it caused panic. So it has always fascinated people. I don’t have a complete answer but I agree with you, Mars fascinates everyone’.

You’ve had an extraordinary career…
‘I am now 66. I am close to retirement now. I retire next year and I will be happy about what I have done in my life’.

Dr Schmidt left the University of Graz with a PhD in Applied Physics in 1977 and started his career as a scientist at the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He joined ESA in 1982 as a staff scientist and has held numerous high profile posts at the agency over the following years. He was project manager on Mars Express from 1997 to 2004, project manager of the Gaia operation from 2004 to 2009, head of the Telecommunications Satellite Projects Department from 2009 to 2012 when he was appointed Inspector General of ESA.

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