During his six month stint in orbit in 2010, American astronaut Scott Kelly accidentally started a fire in the toilet of the International Space Station.
The floating habitats complex filtration system applies an acidic chemical known as a pretreat to spacefarers urine, and a leak in the system caused a cannonball-sized globe of this acid to leak out when Kelly opened a maintenance panel to see why the toilet wasnt working.
A floating ball of acid isnt an ideal travel companion when youre orbiting the Earth in a sealed tube, so Kelly had to act quickly. He grabbed an old t-shirt to try and soak up the acid but the water molecules in the sweat on the shirt reacted with the acid, creating a fireball.
A fictionalised version of this scene described in detail in a brilliant 2014 Esquire article by Chris Jones kicks off the action in Away, a new Netflix drama launching this week. The series, loosely based on Jones reporting on the realities of life in orbit, follows the five-person crew of the first manned mission to Mars at some point in the near future.
The three year mission is an international effort, with astronauts from Russia, China, India, the USA and the UK clearly still maintaining its international influence despite Brexit, and presumably on the verge of signing a galaxy-beating trade deal with Mars.
But while previous entries in the space genre have focussed on what happens when things go wrong with the ship, Away does something different. Toilet fires aside, it instead tries to paint a picture of the emotional trauma associated with a long mission, and the hardships caused by being away from your family on both sides. The action takes place as much on Earth as it does in space.
The show follows American commander Emma Green, played by Hilary Swank, and chosen to lead the mission against the wishes of some of her crewmates. Green has a husband (The Good Wife's Josh Charles)and a teenage daughter at home, and the plot of Away centres on her struggles to balance her work and her life as she travels further and further away during a family crisis.
The show was commissioned in 2018, and you might have expected the current situation to have lent it some extra poignancy video calls with friends and loved ones are something weve all had to get used to in the last six months. Maybe a year ago, screen-mediated communication would have hammered home the difficulties of life as an astronaut, but now it just feels normal at times, Im actually jealous of how good their internet speeds seem to be up there.
Each of the crew members has some personal baggage back home, but they also have to contend with office politics which, in collaborative space travel, is less about who took someones lunch from the communal fridge, and more about navigating the intricacies of soft power and international relations. An American gets to command the mission, on the proviso that a Chinese woman will be the first person to set foot on Mars, for instance.
The result is a show that strips some of the thrill and the sense of danger from space travel. There are some heart-racing moments in the first few episodes but not a whole lot of action instead, expect lots of tense stares and passive aggressive comments.
The Esquire article which the series is based on does a great job of describing in detail how living in space changes you the complex, multi-stage process required to go to the toilet, the way the calluses on your heels start to slough away because youre not walking on them anymore, the way everything from eating to moving around is fundamentally changed by a lack of gravity. But in Away, most of the crew's interactions with each other seem to take place around a table they could be sat in the break room at work, bitching about the boss. It doesnt give you much of an insight into an astronauts life, other than the fact that theyre away from their families, and they occasionally have to use handrails to move around.
You could argue that this leaves Away feeling kind of flat, and maybe a bit boring an uncharitable reviewer could argue that its basically Gravity without the action, Space Force without the comedy, Armageddon without the giant asteroid heading towards Earth.
But if we do succeed in sending people to the surface of Mars, this is exactly what it will be like. There will be moments of high tension interspersed with long periods of doing nothing. There wont be malevolent AIs or hastily improvised repairs, or aliens running amok in the air ducts. They wont send miners. Itll be a team of professionals slowly, calmly and patiently doing their jobs, and missing their families. Away might not have the thrills and spills of a summer blockbuster, but it nails the boring, emotional reality of space travel.
Amit Katwala is WIRED's culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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