Netflix's 'Away' Imagines a Future in Which Going to Mars Is Possible
Creator Andrew Hinderaker tells us about his inspiration for his emotional, hopeful space drama.
There is a scene about midway through Netflix's new series Away, which follows a multinational crew of astronauts on the first-ever manned mission to Mars, where one of the astronauts, his body deteriorating from months in space, slowly peels a chunk of dead skin off of his foot. Not a layer, not a flake, a chunk. It's a moment taken, like certain other moments in the show, from a 2014 Esquire feature, also titled "Away," in which the writer Chris Jones interviewed astronaut Scott Kelly in the days leading up to his one-year solo mission aboard the International Space Station.
During his previous six-month stay aboard the ISS, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Gifford, the wife of Scott's identical twin brother, Mark, was shot in an assassination attempt. With no way to come home, Kelly could only complete his mission, fueled by daily calls and updates from his family on his sister-in-law's condition. It's this impossible, heart-wrenching situation that inspired playwright and screenwriter Andrew Hinderaker to create Away -- though Hinderaker is no astronaut, he felt a kinship with Kelly nonetheless.
"My partner and I have been together for fifteen years, and she lives with a progressive and really terrible disease and was diagnosed when I was away opening a play," Hinderaker explained during a recent interview. "To be apart from someone you love when they need you, to be pulled there because you think you're doing what you should be doing for your career and then you receive this really devastating news, you fundamentally want to be home with the people you love, and that was a feeling that resonated with me really personally."
Away follows astronaut Emma Green, played by Hilary Swank, who is forced to decide whether to stay home with her family after her husband (Josh Charles) suffers a devastating medical emergency, or to command the first human mission to another planet. Emma chooses to go, and the show follows the challenges she and her fellow spacefarers face trying to stay alive for years aboard a spaceship, the trials back home faced by her daughter and her husband, and the bond that ties them together.
Part of the challenge -- and the thrill -- of writing about an endeavor of this scale that hasn't been attempted yet is imagining what a trip this far away from home would do to a person. In Jones' article, he writes about the phenomenon astronauts experience of becoming "more yourself" in space. "The moon is, if I remember correctly, 240,000 miles away," Hinderaker said. "Mars at its closest is 40 million miles away. So, everything in terms of the psychological weight, what that sense of isolation might be, everything is amplified exponentially." Green is constantly at odds with Misha (Mark Ivanir), a cosmonaut from Russia, and Lu (Vivian Wu), a Chinese astronaut, experiences a betrayal that compels her to lock herself in her quarters for months. Astronauts, by nature the most professional people in the world, wouldn't normally be susceptible to breakdowns or panic attacks or arguments with crewmates, but a journey of this magnitude allowed Hinderaker to explore his characters a little bit more. "Green's psychiatrist has a line to the effect of, 'She's currently 20 million miles from her family. I can talk about isolation, but that requires a new word altogether.'"
Yet, the best parts of Away, and another reason Hinderaker was inspired to create the show, focus on the crew's ability to problem solve and work together, not just to keep themselves alive, but also to do something that has never been done before. "The article speaks really specifically about the International Space Station, and how something so ambitious was only possible because countries that normally don't work together found a way to work together," Hinderaker said. "Rocket scientists from the former Soviet Union and the United States, who would otherwise be engaged in designing technologies of warfare, repurposed those technologies for discovery." The ISS and other research into space that requires multinational cooperation exist in a space outside of government borders: "The set of rules and politics that govern the International Space Station are completely different than the ones that govern Earth."
In his research, of which Hinderaker and his team of writers (which also included Jones) did copious amounts, interviewing astronauts and their families to get the feeling of what it all must be like, he discovered a few common threads which he called "paradigm-shifting." "They are one of the very small handful of people who get to look back at our planet and understand that, for example, national borders don't exist as they exist on maps and globes, that they are a construct made up of lines that people drew," Hinderaker said. Former astronaut Cady Coleman once explained that the first time she experienced zero-G in space, she realized that "gravity was just one way in which humans were meant to live." Another astronaut, Don Pettit, described to Hinderaker a theory that a piece of Mars, which may at one point have been biologically diverse, could have broken off and landed on Earth, introducing life to our planet. "So, in a very real way," Hinderaker said, "these astronauts who are going to Mars are going home."
There's a concept that some who study ancient things -- geologists who map the strata of the Earth's crust, or physicists who spend days in silent rooms listening to the cosmic background radiation of the universe -- call "deep time," which spans not generations or millennia but millions, billions of years, a kind of time that the mere human mind wasn't built to comprehend. Space travel, the drive to visit places beyond our planet that could someday house our descendants, to be the first or the second or the tenth person to set foot on soil that's not our own knowing you won't live to see what ends up being built upon it, is an inherently selfless thing. There's a beautiful moment in the show's finale, which, without spoiling too much, boldly eschews anything having to do with nationality or personal gain, marking space travel as a human achievement instead of a contest between countries. It's in the same spirit of Neil Armstrong's famous "one small step" quote, whose final word, purposely, is "mankind."
"In one of the first conversations I had with an engineer at NASA, when I described the show via the first crewed mission to Mars, he said, 'Oh, is it set in, like, 2090?'" Hinderaker explained. "And I said, 'Well, if there was the international collaboration and the will, how soon could you go?' And he was like, 'We could go tomorrow.'" The show has no flying cars or brain implants or food coming out of spray cans -- Away is meant to look as if it could be happening today, right now. "We're not talking about sci-fi," Hinderaker said. "We can do this. And the show is rooted in that optimism."
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