What ‘Away’ gets right and wrong about life in space

    7 September 2020

    “Reaching Mars might prove to be the greatest achievement, not only for science, but for the future of our planet.” So says Hilary Swank’s character Commander Emma Green, in Netflix’s space drama Away.

    The series is billed as sci-fi, but human beings landing on Mars may be no further off than your next house move, or your kids doing their A-levels, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes he can get us there by 2024, with a city established by 2050.

    The tech billionaire’s timing may be ambitious, but the prospect of reaching the Red Planet doesn’t seem to be in question. Britain’s first official astronaut, Tim Peake, believes we’ll do it in the next 20-50 years, US president Donald Trump has declared he wants humans on Mars by 2033 and NASA has its sights on 2035.

    So landing on Mars is within the realms of reality – but does the minutiae of this new series stand up to scrutiny?

    Gregory H. Johnson is a US Air Force colonel turned astronaut. Now Chief Space Officer of Space Nation, Johnson’s clocked up over 30 days in space on NASA’s space shuttle program, on missions to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2011.

    While the Americans claim him as their own, Gregory – aka Box Johnson – is actually the fifth British-born astronaut to go to space. So how does Johnson’s experience in space tally with that of the astronauts in Away? Let’s take a look…

    Can a relationship survive a long stint in space?

    Fiction: “Don’t go,” says Emma’s husband Matt in Away. The wobble is momentary, as NASA engineer Matt is selflessly supportive of his wife’s three year sojourn in space. But it takes a few episodes for us to fully believe it, as nice-guy Matt is confusingly cursed with an unfortunate resting face that suggests hatred is burning from within.

    Reality: “My wife never said, “don’t go.” She expressed concern the second time because it wasn’t planned – I’d thought my first flight would be my last. My kids and my wife had a lot of questions, but I think they were satisfied. Cari knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot and an astronaut when we got married – it was a pre-existing dream, so she knew what she was getting into!”

    Josh Charles as Matt and Hilary Swank as Emma in Away (Netflix)

    Do zoom calls work from space?

    Fiction: The crew of the Atlas seem to spend more time on video calls than a coven of fourteen year olds planning their outfits for a Saturday afternoon. This slows down only as they approach Mars, when time delays occur.

    Reality: “There’ve been exponential advances in technology over the last two decades, but on my first shuttle flight we only had a couple of email syncs a day, and we were able to make phone calls occasionally. On my second flight, we didn’t have internet but we had fairly continuous email sync-ups and higher quality audio-visual telecom.

    I remember sitting in the Cupola which is essentially a big, bay window that looks down on the earth. I was speaking to my family via this floating laptop, sharing the view. It started over the great lakes in the US, and went across the ocean, got really close to Southern UK, and then across Europe, the Med, and eventually Madagascar. We went that far during a 20 minute call – it was an incredible experience.”

    Are astronauts really risking death?

    Fiction: The Atlas astronauts are given 50-50 odds of coming back alive, and when they’re faced with a crisis that could be their undoing, the “last words” they send to mission control are: “It was worth it.”

    Reality: “If you asked me right now if I’d go to Mars with 50-50 odds of coming back, I don’t know. I’m later in life and I’ve done most things – I know there’s a lot of life left in me, but I’d probably be able to take that risk. Or maybe if there was a 75 per cent chance I’d come back, I’d think about taking that mission, because it would be an amazing way to end your career.

    On the space shuttle, our odds were closer to 1 in a 100. That’s still a risky undertaking, so we all planned for the possibility that we wouldn’t return. On NASA’s space shuttle program, two of the 135 shuttles didn’t come back, so empirically my odds were more like 1 out of 70. We knew the risks we were signing up for and our partners were aware of the danger, but I question if it’s more dangerous to drive in Houston than it is to fly in space!”

    Hilary Swank gets to grips with zero gravity (Netflix)

    Can space travel affect your eyesight?

    Fiction: Flying on Atlas, rookie English astronaut Kwesi suffers from nausea as a result of gravitational change, while Russian space veteran Misha experiences a deterioration in his eyesight.

    Reality: “Gravitational change affects every person to a certain extent. Some people start vomiting, and when one crew member vomits, often everybody vomits. That happens quite a bit on missions. We never used any barf bags on either of my two flights, but I think that was very much an anomaly because our systems are messed up when we’re floating and that can lead to nausea, vertigo, and dizziness.

    Gravity also affects your eyesight – we started realising that towards the end of the shuttle program. We studied it on my last flight – they did MRIs on everybody’s eyes and we tested our eyesight daily. Most people’s eyes got a little bit worse and I know of one person whose eyesight shifted three diopters worse. Amazingly, my eyes got better – I normally have a light prescription but in space I didn’t have to wear glasses at all. When I came back I joked: “You’ve got to fly me on a third flight just because my eyes get better!”

    What really happens when astronauts fall out with each other?

    Fiction: There’s an air of competition between the Atlas astronauts from the off as Commander Emma Green has her authority undermined by Russian relic Misha and her colleague Lu, who has all the warmth of a cardboard cut-out that’s been buried in an avalanche.

    Reality: “On my first flight, one of the crew members was significantly impacted by high carbon dioxide levels and his personality kind of shifted. There were disagreements and conflict but we worked through it. When you train together, you learn how to deal with conflict because it’s going to happen.

    The astronaut mindset is that we’re working together and the mission is the higher calling. We don’t want to jeopardise that, so when we see a conflict happening, we work out our differences and get over it. So although there were conflicts between different personalities that might have always had a bit of a rub, on my two flights at least, we did a good job of managing that, and we’re all good friends even today.”

    The crew of Atlas, Away (Netflix)

    Does romance ever blossom in space?

    Fiction: Spoiler alert – I’ll hold back on details, but by the end of Away there are at least three extramarital affairs in the offing.

    Reality: “Whenever you have groups that are gone for long periods of time, whether that’s in a company where somebody is gone a lot on his job, in the military where you’re fighting a war, or if you’re living and working in space, certainly those sorts of things can happen. I’ll just say that. We’re human beings and some segment of the population will get caught up in liaisons. But as far as astronauts working together, men and women, it’s professional. When you’re up in space, that’s not the time to have a liaison – you’re there to get a job done.”

    Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here