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Why NASA and Matt Damon Love 'The Martian'

In a preview of heart-pounding footage from "The Martian," Matt Damon struggles to survive on the desolate surface of the Red Planet.
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In "The Martian," Matt Damon struggles to survive alone on the desolate surface of the Red Planet, while NASA tries to explain to the public how it left an astronaut behind.

If there was a Martian Board of Tourism, this would be a terrible commercial. In a 50-minute preview shown to the press last week, director Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") subjects the main character to a long list of psychological and physical hardships. So why is NASA embracing the film, which comes out Oct. 2, so enthusiastically?

"We're not as dramatic as we could be, but that's why we're successful," said NASA astronaut Drew Feustel at the screening, held near NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

In other words, NASA likes things to be boring -- that means everything is going as planned. But the agency knows danger and drama can inspire kids to become interested in its mission.

"I have done a lot of space travel in the last couple of years ... on-screen," joked Damon. (He also appeared in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar.")

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The actor said he hoped "The Martian" might inspire some moviegoers to pursue careers in science.

"I do hope that some kids see the movie and geek out on the science, and maybe it's one thing of many things in their lives that pushes them in that direction."

Keeping it real

"The Martian" is based on the story of the same name by Andy Weir, a computer programmer who first released it on his blog, then as a 99-cent ebook, and then finally as a traditional hardcover and paperback novel.

Unlike "Star Wars," this movie doesn't feature laser swords and spaceships that travel faster than light. Instead, it's very grounded in science, much of it looked up on the Internet by Weir and crowd-sourced from his readers.

For instance, there is a scene in the movie where (spoiler alert) Matt Damon's character realizes that he doesn't have enough food to last until a rescue attempt could theoretically be launched for him.

His ship, Ares 3, brought water -- but not enough to keep crops alive. So he has to figure out how to create more water, a major plot point that Weir almost did not include in the story until he did some research online.

The Martian
NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, left, and actor Matt Damon participate in a question and answer session about "The Martian" at the United Artist Theater in La Cañada Flintridge, California.NASA/Bill Ingalls

"If you're accurate to everything, you can end up with the science dictating the plot," Weir told NBC News at JPL. "That's how I found that he wasn't going to have enough water to moisten his crops."

(All of that research turned out to premature; when Curiosity explored Mars, it found that there was more water in the soil than anticipated, which would have made the main character's life much easier.

"There has been a lot of research that has come up since I published the book that has invalidated parts of it, which I really can't be blamed for," he said.)

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, enjoys fantastic sci-fi like "Star Wars" and "Dune." But its commitment to science makes "The Martian" special, he said, especially with its advanced versions of current NASA rovers, rockets and habitats.

"It gives us an opportunity to tell the public, who funds NASA, what we're really doing," Green told NBC News. "We are developing capabilities that will put humans on Mars. The movies gives us an opportunity to show what a realistic Mars environment might be like."

Why bother with the Red Planet?

So the Mars in "The Martian" is more realistic than the one in "John Carter" and other sci-fi movies. It's still a dangerous place -- why send people there instead of more robots?

Not only would landing boots on Martian soil be great for scientific research in the short-term, it could also one day save the human race.

"Mars, when you look at all of the terrestrial planets, is the go-to planet," Green said.

More than a billion years from now, the sun will become bigger and hotter, and Earth will become a scorching, inhospitable place. Mars would suddenly occupy the prime spot in our solar system's habitable zone.

And that's a best-case scenario. Disease, nuclear war or a giant asteroid could all spell doom for the human race before a growing sun even has the chance to end all life on Earth.

"Until we set up a permanent, self-sustaining population on Mars, we have a small, but real, chance of extinction," Weir said. "If we exist on multiple planets, it's virtually impossible to wipe out our species. Having been a computer programmer for 25 years, I know the value of backing things up."