AutoMatters & More: Cars on Mars, JPL & “The Martian”


In the early 1970s, Apollo astronauts drove a lunar rover to explore and travel around the moon. When we go to Mars, we will need ground transportation vehicles there, too.

In 2006, I wrote (in column #86) about the Mars exploration rover named “Spirit,” which had landed on Mars two years earlier. That plucky, remote-controlled space vehicle looked more like a tabletop on wheels than anything remotely resembling an automobile. Instead, like the other rovers that followed it, Spirit was designed to function like a mobile geological laboratory. Solar-powered and just over five feet in length, it included a mast with several cameras, antennae, sensors and a “rock abrasion tool.”

For its intended three-month mission on Mars, “Spirit” was only expected to travel about the length of six to ten football fields. Instead, as noted on Wikipedia, it wildly exceeded all expectations by several times over. “Spirit” continued to explore and geologically analyze Mars for more than five years beyond its planned mission duration, traveling almost five miles before it got stuck. With no AAA on Mars to come to its rescue, that is where it remains.

On Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 10 and 11, you can see and learn about a full-scale model of the “Curiosity” Mars rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s annual Open House in Pasadena. No reservations are required to visit, and there will be no charge. For more information, visit

“The Martian,” directed by renowned director Ridley Scott, is a brilliant film – a complex, technically plausible story about a manned expedition to Mars that becomes an epic tale of survival, against all odds. In the spirit of the “MacGyver” TV series, it celebrates human resourcefulness and ingenuity, and demonstrates a fiercely determined will to remain optimistic and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and adversity.

Andy Weir meticulously researched his novel, basing it closely upon plausible science and math — with levels of detail and accuracy so precise that calculations were used to determine orbital paths for the travel through space. The design of the surface spacesuits was carefully researched at the Smithsonian Museum, the Johnson Space Center and JPL. Likewise, great care was taken to design and construct a realistic NASA Mission Control Room, the Hermes interplanetary spacecraft and the Hab, where the astronauts lived while on Mars.

The Hermes, which was based on design properties of the actual International Space Station, was said to be powered by a nuclear-powered ion plasma propulsion engine based on NASA advanced design plans. It is realistically equipped with solar panels, oxygen and water storage cells, heat dissipation fins, communications modules and other vital life support mechanisms. Cast members were harnessed to wire rigs that simulated zero gravity.

Six sound stages at Korda Studios near Budapest, Hungary, contained the massive sets. In what may be the largest sound stage in the world, four thousand tons of soil and other materials were used to replicate a Martian landscape.

Rather than relying heavily on computer-generated special effects, physical effects were devised. To simulate a cataclysmic sandstorm, huge fans blew large quantities of dirt at speeds approaching 65 mph. The result was “like walking in a hurricane.” Air vents in the cast members’ space helmets were repeatedly blocked by dust, which made breathing difficult.

In a greenhouse that was built in the studio, 1,200 potatoes were actually grown.

Loosely based upon the Curiosity rover, the Rover in “The Martian” is a super-sized, rugged, six-wheeled, solar-powered, all-terrain agricultural vehicle with very high ground clearance. It looks like something that NASA might have developed for our own space program. It plays a vital role in the progression of the plot and its outcome.

Matt Damon is well cast for his leading role. He, the novel’s strong basis in science and math, and a convincing cast of supporting characters combine to make “The Martian” intensely believable, realistic and compelling.

In the story, just about everything that could have gone wrong did. If there were to be any hope of prevailing in these difficult and challenging circumstances, extreme out-of-the-box thinking and many creative solutions would be necessary. Unofficially, the novel is recommended reading at the Johnson Space Center.

Surely destined to become a classic, “The Martian” is spiritually uplifting. There are so many details to take in that you may need to see it more than once.

I encourage you to write to with your comments and suggestions.

Copyright © 2015 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #405