The scientist in Hollywood


Dr. Rudolf Schmidt knows a thing or two about science, having been the project manager on European Space Agency’s Mars Express which has sent unmanned spacecraft to the red planet. Perhaps that’s why Hollywood regularly calls him for advice when making space films. The latest to come calling were the makers of Life, the upcoming sci-fi horror film starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Excerpts from a quick chat with the ESA space engineering expert:

When the makers of The Martian contacted you for guidance, you thought it was a prank call. Surely, by now, you’re used to such calls.

(Laughs) Yes. I wasn’t too much into films back then. Now, I think I know a few people. In fact, I knew quite a few who were part of making Life.

What did you like about the story?

Life is about a potentially hostile sample from Mars being investigated in the International Space Station. I chose to work on the film because I like such stories that can plausibly happen within the next couple of decades.

You don’t think it’s unlikely that a Mars sample could be hostile to life on earth?

No. There are chemicals, ingredients on the red planet that could, say, cause infections. So, it’s a clever idea to use the International Space Station to investigate the sample before proceeding to bring it into our atmosphere. Presently, the current configuration in ISS doesn’t allow for rigorous analysis. But discussions are happening over a possible enhancement of ISS. European countries are interested. Russia is too. We need to know what we are bringing in. In that sense, as I said, the story of Life is rooted in reality.

Perhaps they will add a television to the ISS soon

How real does fiction need to be? Does it irk your scientific sensibilities when your informed advice gets rejected for a more exciting, implausible alternative?

Not at all. Let me give you an example. In the real world, any communication between Earth and Mars takes a bit of time. A message from Mars will take about 30 minutes to get here, and vice-versa. Can you imagine if films portrayed it like that? People will fall asleep. I realise I’m simply an advisor. The director decides if the advice is useful for the purposes of his story. I have no problems with that.

Considering Life is dubbed as a sci-fi horror film, I think it’s safe to conclude that the Mars sample that is brought back to the ISS is indeed hostile for mankind. As an engineer who has worked on Mars missions, do you think it’s likely that such stories dissuade exploration?

(Pause) I think all these films are useful; they inspire interest in space exploration and make people understand why it needs to be done. To that end, every space film, good or bad, helps.

A year ago, it was The Martian. Now, Life. What is it about cinema and the red planet?

Venus, Earth and Mars were all quite similar once. However, with time, Venus got hotter and its atmosphere became unsustainable for life. We stayed the same. Mars, meanwhile, got colder. Despite that, it’s likely best placed in our solar system—after Earth, of course—for life. It also helps that it’s the easiest planet for us to travel to and investigate.

“Hey Earthlings! Focus on the other planets a bit maybe?”

Director Daniel Espinosa must have learned a great deal about space from you. What’s in these contributions for you?

I learned a bit too! It isn’t every day that I meet filmmakers and discuss stories. They ask all sorts of questions; some of them are really thought-provoking. Daniel, for instance, offhandedly asked me what’d happen if somebody cried in space. The lack of gravity will obviously make sure that the tears remain close to the eyes. However, I had to spend an entire evening reading and researching about it. I ended up learning a lot.

Apart from this, there’s also the benefit of getting up close with celebrities like Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. (Laughs)

This interview was written for The New Indian Express.  All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.


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