How NASA Kept Things Real With 'The Martian'

The Martian Trailer - H 2015
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox/AP Images

Director Ridley Scott consulted with the space agency on everything from martian weather to space-suit designs and had a space station premiere: "We felt that this movie was very much a love letter to NASA," says screenwriter Drew Goddard.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On Sept. 19, The Martian, opening in theaters Oct. 2 and starring Matt Damon, was screened at the most remote theater in the known universe — aboard the International Space Station, 250 miles above the Earth's surface, give or take. It was a rare bit of promotional cooperation from NASA, which normally doesn't get involved in marketing films (the space agency turned down a request that Interstellar be screened on the station before premiering on Earth).

The screening was just part of The Martian's unusually close relationship with NASA that began in May 2014, when director Ridley Scott called the agency seeking guidance on making his stranded-on-Mars drama as realistic as possible. He ended up on the line with Jim Green — Dr. Mars, as he's known at NASA — the director of the Planetary Science Division. “I talked to him twice prior to the shoot, for several hours," says Green.

It was movie night for astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Sept. 19. “What a treat,” one tweeted.

"And, over a period of a month, we answered hundreds of questions. We arranged a tour of the Johnson Space Center for production designer Arthur Max — he took thousands of pictures, clicked at everything for eight hours. We also sent hundreds of files of real images of Mars and images of control centers, down to what the computer screens look like," says Green.

Still, the filmmakers didn't get completely carried away with reality. "We felt that this movie was very much a love letter to NASA; we wanted it to be as accurate as possible," says screenwriter Drew Goddard. "But the soul of what we were going after was more important." Sometimes there was a blending of fact and function. The film's ship, for instance, was part-NASA inspired, part-Hollywood fantasy, especially its Ikea-ish modern furniture. "NASA furniture would probably be more austere, and more functional,” says Green.

The level of NASA's cooperation — including helping to plug the film as it heads for the launchpad — is a coup for Fox. Among the many events organized by the two, select NASA staff and astronauts were shown The Martian at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, while there’s a screening scheduled at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on Oct. 1.

For its part, NASA proved it could pull off a PR stunt far greater than anything Hollywood could concoct, arranging on Sept. 27 — four days before the film's release — to find liquid salt water on the surface of Mars. Talk about a publicity coup.