Last fall, I was a fan of the Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind,” about what would have happened if the Soviet Union had gotten to the moon before the US, thus keeping the global space race going, rather than stalling in 1972 when NASA cancelled further lunar missions after Apollo 17. That show has been renewed for a second season, but there’s no word on when it will debut — or whether any of it was produced before COVID shut Hollywood down earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Netflix has just released “Away,” a sci-fi drama about the first human mission to Mars. It stars Hilary Swank as Emma Green, the American commander of a five-person international crew — the others are Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Ghanaian. Josh Charles plays Emma’s husband, Matt, a NASA engineer, and there are various other supporting characters at mission control, as well as Emma and Matt’s teenage daughter, Alexis.
I dove into it yesterday, watching the first three episodes, but I’m not sure I’ll watch many more. The problem is that too much of the show is soap-opera-like drama involving the Earth-bound characters. For instance, Matt suffers a stroke and is confined to a hospital bed, but stays in regular contact with Emma — because it’s so easy to maintain personal communication with an astronaut headed for Mars — as he gets special attention from Alexis, who’s having her own teen crises.
Backstories of the other astronauts unfold as well, steeping us unnecessarily in their personal histories. Meanwhile, each episode has a technical problem on the spaceship that must be solved by the crew, often by disobeying NASA’s instructions (because they know better), even if it means risking their lives outside the ship. To top it off, there’s a lot of furrowed-eyebrow tension within the crew, with two of them having no faith in Emma, who is thus forced to earn their loyalty every day.
Aside from scoffing at the dramatic cliches, I also had some questions about one specific scientific aspect of the show that came up repeatedly, so I emailed my friend Phil Plait, the noted astronomer who writes a daily blog for SyFyWire. I began by asking:
Though the show obviously takes place in our near future, it includes several scenes of characters on a Mars mission using cell phones to call home to their loved ones. In the first episode, those calls are made from a lunar base, and I know the transmission time would be minimal because we had it with the Apollo astronauts. But as they launched from Moon and are on their way to Mars, they continue to use them.So, here are my questions:1) Would cell phone use be possible in space? Considering they won’t work from a plane 35,000 feet above the Earth, it seems illogical they’d work 250,000 miles away on the Moon. Or could NASA set up cell towers there for its personnel at a lunar base?2) How far away from Earth would the astronauts have to be before they couldn’t have a coherent conversation with anyone on Earth because of the transmission delay? I remember Miles O’Brien of CNN being asked if he’d like to go to Mars and do live reports from there, and he answered that it would be very problematic because there would be a 20-minute gap between each question and answer.3) Would astronauts ever have a private communication channel for use by astronauts without NASA (or the other space agencies around the world involved in the mission) listening in?
I was thinking about the cell phone thing. If it acts as a microphone that connects to the ship’s radio, then I suppose it could work. It would send the signal through the ship, down to Earth, and Mission Control would patch it to her daughter’s phone. But it seems silly, when they would have systems built into the ship for that. If the “phone” were actually a handheld computer that connects to the ship in general (like in The Expanse) then it would make more sense, but I don’t recall them using them that way.The closest Mars gets to Earth is very roughly 30 million miles, which is about 3 minutes light travel time one way. At max, when they’re on opposite sides of the Sun, it’s more like 20 minutes. I’m not sure how far it would be before it got really annoying. Certainly even talking to the Moon in a real conversation would be irritating; think about lag in a Zoom meeting now. 🙂 People step on each other all the time, so a 1.3 second delay would be mighty irritating. And that’s one way! So I guess, pick a time that would be irritating to you, then divide it by the speed of light. That’ll give you a distance.I wondered about the private channel thing too. I don’t know. I’ve never heard of such a thing outside TV and movies. But maybe you’d need to ask an astronaut or someone in the military.