A pregnant astronaut goes to live on Mars with five other space explorers. She dies in childbirth soon after arriving, and the baby is raised on the Red Planet. Sixteen years later, the child returns to Earth to find out about his past.
This is the dramatic setup for the new film The Space Between Us, and it may sound like pure fantasy. But the filmmakers used real data to make Gardner Elliot (played by Asa Butterfield from Hugo) and his journey as scientifically plausible as possible, even consulting with NASA alum Scott Hubbard to make sure they got it right.
Hubbard was at NASA for over 20 years and was the agency’s first “Mars czar”—as program director, he oversaw the development of Mars rovers like Curiosity. He was involved with The Space Between Us for almost four years as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Some of Hubbard’s work was cosmetic—to heighten the movie’s realism, he arranged for exterior shots to be filmed at Kennedy Space Center and the Virgin Galactic (SPCE) spaceport (most of the movie was shot in Albuquerque). He also focused on details like how Gardner would respond to color.
“Mars is mostly red, so someone coming to Earth for the first time would be stunned by the pallet of colors,” Hubbard told the Observer. “Gardner would be affected to his core.”
There were also plenty of medical problems to deal with, starting with Gardner’s first journey to Mars as a fetus. Since NASA has never experimented with human embryos, Hubbard and the crew took guidance from Neurolab, which was part of a 1998 Space Shuttle Columbia mission.
This experiment showed that mouse embryos exposed to reduced gravity (Mars’ surface gravity is 62 percent lower than Earth’s) developed enlarged hearts and brittle bones. Hence Gardner was given those same impediments.
Hubbard described other tools Gardner uses to prepare for his journey, including a magnetic implant which monitors the growth of his organs and nanotubes which strengthen his bone density, as “plausible extrapolations.”
Earthbound science also played a part in Gardner’s story—his caretakers are worried about the elevated levels of troponin in his blood on Earth. This protein regulates muscle contraction, and increased amounts of it can lead to cardiac problems such as Gardner’s enlarged heart.
The film does not delve into Mars’ effect on Gardner’s brain, though research on the neurological effects of space travel has proliferated in recent years. Dr. Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine recently completed a NASA-funded experiment on “space brain,” a condition which leads to damaged neurons, impaired memory and difficulty learning new tasks. The mice Limoli experimented on exhibited all of these triggers—his research was published in Scientific Reports in October.
In his experiment, rats who were exposed to the level of radiation that deep space astronauts would encounter suffered damaged neurons, impaired memory and difficulty learning new tasks.
Limoli told the Observer that being exposed to this radiation as a fetus would predispose Gardner to developmental problems, and that growing up on Mars would exacerbate these risks. Indeed, his preliminary experiments show that just 400 to 500 days living on Mars would lead to elevated levels of anxiety and depression.
“An uber smart person would still be uber smart, but they would also be riddled with indecision,” Limoli said.
Living on Mars for years like Gardner does could lead to severe cognitive detriments, and the journey back to Earth at 16 would make things worse by exposing him to more radiation.
According to Limoli, the people who actually colonize Mars could reduce radiation exposure by living in and around cliffs and caves (Gardner and his cohorts live in a habitat under a plastic bubble in the film). They could also protect themselves with pharmacological remedies (Limoli is developing one himself).
While NASA’s Hubbard admitted that any cardiac or neurological therapies which could help humans survive on Mars are purely speculative, he pointed out that the agency is conducting endurance experiments on astronauts like Scott Kelly, who spent almost a year in space—data from these tests could be used to help people survive during long periods on other planets.
“They (astronauts like Kelly) know how to cope with it,” Hubbard said. “Maybe someday we will too.”