One evening in early November 2017, I met Andrew Hinderaker at a Houston restaurant named Nobi. Located just down the road from Johnson Space Center, Nobi offers a fantastic combination of Vietnamese food and a rich, rotating selection of draft beer. It’s a classic Houston joint, a fusion of cultures that is the better for it. As such, the restaurant serves as a popular watering hole for the space set.
Hinderaker and a friend of mine named Chris Jones were starting to write on a television show about a realistic human mission to Mars. “From the beginning, Chris and I have believed that this show should be neither naive nor pessimistic,” Hinderaker explained to me. “We believe that there is something aspirational about space exploration, even if the mechanisms that enable it are often bureaucratic.”
I loved the idea. Then, as now, I covered spaceflight, particularly the efforts of NASA, other space agencies, and private companies to expand humanity beyond low-Earth orbit. I had thought a lot about the politics and the technology that might one day enable a small band of humans to travel from Earth to Mars, land on the red planet for a while, and travel back. So Hinderaker and I talked through these issues.
None of this is simple, I explained. Mounting a human mission to Mars will require an incredible amount of funding, several key technologies to reach maturity, and sustained support for more than a decade. Almost certainly, it will necessitate the cooperation of several nations. And the current relationships between space agencies in the United States, Russia, Europe, China, India, Japan, and elsewhere are complex, and evolving.
At the end of our conversation, having drained several glasses of Belgian beer, I wished Hinderaker luck.
Nearly three years later, Netflix released the first season of the television series Away, which tells the story of an international human mission to Mars. Simply put, I found the show to be fantastic. The characters felt real, the politics felt real, and the technology felt real. It’s as if the show’s creator, Hinderaker, alongside Jones and the other writers assessed the state of play in human spaceflight in 2020, and they did their best to imagine an optimistic scenario for a decade from now.
Unlike so much science fiction on television and in movies today, the emphasis in Away is not on space battles or explosions or fancy space hardware. This show is about the people, first, and our all-too-fallible technology, second. This television show puts the human into human spaceflight.
Some viewers may be put off by a character-driven show that focuses on people and their complicated relationships, both in space and on the ground. Unlike a lot of current TV, too, Away moves slowly. The quiet moments are quiet. The long shots linger. There is plenty of, umm, space for the show and its characters to breathe. Where the hell is Mars, you may be asking? It is largely off screen, but in the background, driving the story forward.
One of the fascinating things about Away is that it takes a stab at exploring how astronauts independent of ground control will behave. Even during the Apollo missions to the Moon, crew members faced only a few seconds of comm delays with Mission Control in Houston. On a journey to Mars, seconds quickly become minutes. This gives the crew freedom to make their own decisions and to realize their actions are beyond the reach of flight directors on the ground.
A hopeful show
Because of the actions taken on the way to Mars in the show, some critics have said the five astronauts in Away would never have passed the extensive screenings to become crew members. But I suspect traveling into deep space for months at a time will have a profound effect on astronauts and lead to more independence. And while the public view of astronauts may be that of super-heroes, almost perfect people, they are all too human with family issues, egos, and foibles. (They’re still almost universally awesome, of course).
There are a few truly implausible events in Away. The most glaring of which for me was the uncertainty about whether the Pegasus supply ship successfully landed on Mars, a few weeks before the crew’s arrival. In the real world, this supply vessel would have launched and landed safely on Mars before a human crew ever left Earth’s gravity well. Moreover, there would be satellites in orbit around Mars to image the landing site.
But these are small quibbles. Most of the technology comes across as legitimate, an evolution of existing systems. If the show does not portray enough involvement from commercial companies—it is hard to see NASA reaching Mars without SpaceX, for example—it does the intergovernmental space agency politics well. Bottom line: this show is set in a plausible future.
As Hinderaker said in 2017, the show is aspirational. We could all use a little more of that in 2020. Although it seems unlikely now, one could imagine the United States and China unifying behind an exploration mission for the entire world. And so the show depicts humanity, with all of its flaws and political squabbles, coming together to send astronauts to another planet. It’s something we have never done in our 300,000 or so years as a species on our green planet. But if we’re lucky, it’s something we just might live to see in our lifetimes.
This is the hope I took away from Away.
Listing image by Diyah Pera/Netflix