- Away is now streaming on Netflix.
- The series follows the passengers of a 3-year long mission to Mars.
- While the series takes several scientific liberties, the basis for the plot was an actual 2014 NASA mission.
Insofar as Netflix’s new space drama Away charts a yet unattempted manned voyage to Mars, it is, yes, “science fiction.” The inspiration for the storyline, however, comes from an actual NASA mission, which, depending on your conspiracy meter, is very much not fiction.
The series is loosely based on journalist Chris Jones’ Esquire piece on the lead up to the 2015 NASA launch that saw astronaut Scott Kelly begin a 1-year-long mission aboard the International Space Station—the mission marking one of the longest uninterrupted periods of time any astronaut would spend in space. The mission’s primary goal was to record how Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko would react to their prolonged space exposure. The data (aided by NASA’s Twins study; astronaut Scott Kelly is an identical twin with astronaut Mark Kelly) would help to better understand how the human body reacts to longer space flights, data important for longer future voyages—notably, Mars.
Netflix’s Away envisions how NASA might proceed from this data and what a manned flight to Mars would look like—both from the astronaut’s perspective and the world’s.
And though mankind hasn’t yet (*quickly checks world headlines*) landed on Mars, we have recorded many similar phenomena that Away‘s astronauts experienced in the series. Here’s what we know about the science within the fiction.
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What was NASA’s ISS year-long mission?
Part of NASA’s space research prerogative includes “human research,” or studies on the human body as it adapts to extended stays in space.
On March 27, 2015, American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko launched on Soyuz TMA-16M to the International Space Station. They returned to Earth aboard a separate flight on Marc 2, 2016.
The data collected on Kelly helped inform NASA’s Twin Study. Kelly’s twin brother Mark Kelly (a former NASA astronaut) remained on the ground during the year, acting as a control—a body with the same genes not being pummeled by space.
While the mission of the Netflix series is very different from the 2015-2016 NASA mission (Kelly never went farther than the ISS), one common feature remains the fascination with human bodily changes.
What did we discover about the human body in space?
NASA noted that Kelly’s mission demonstrated “the resilience and robustness of how a human body can adapt to a multitude of changes induced by the spaceflight environment.” It was noted that the rate of Kelly’s changes began to slow the longer he remained in space, suggesting some level of biological adjustment.
That said, there were differences observed between the two Kellys.
Some of these differences were expected, such as bone density loss. Other changes were more surprising, including the elongation of Kelly’s telomeres, a cap-like structure on the end of one’s chromosomes, our DNA molecules. It’s unclear what effect this could have longterm, and upon return to Earth most of Kelly’s telomeres returned to pre-flight size. (Some did, however, get shorter, which could be associated with cardiovascular risk. But, again, the effect isn’t yet clear.)
Kelly’s gene expression changed as well, though this may have been a reaction to the radiation in space, which some suggest would have been 48 times higher than what the average Earth dweller experiences.
NASA noted that 91.3% of Scott’s gene expression levels returned to normal within just six months of his return to Earth. Kelly did score lower on his cognitive examine upon landing, but such variations could have been caused by stress. Kelly also reported having trouble sleeping when he returned and dealing with pain.
In general, there were several limitations to NASA’s study. Kelly could only draw so much blood at a time, making many tests difficult to run (blood was sent back to Earth with routine cargo shipments). Because Kelly remained at the ISS, cosmic radiation was less than in deep space, meaning the farther out an astronaut goes, the more their body might change. But the greatest limitation was of course sample size. Kelly is only one person, making it difficult to conclude whether or not each astronaut would experience exactly the same changes.
What many (including Kelly) do experience, though, and what became most critical in the Netflix series: impaired vision. (One previous astronaut reported at one point not being able to read a checklist.)
Having skin float away after removing ones sock is also a reported phenomena; skin sloughing in space is more visible.
So while Netflix’s series may have exaggerated certain technological capabilities, they do accurately depict one feature of deep space travel: it’s effects are pretty unknown and potentially very gross and scary.
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