This story is part of , our series exploring the red planet.
Hilary Swank owns a variety of space-themed socks. Some have stars on them, some have planets. She bought the cosmic hosiery because real-life NASA astronaut Mike Massimino is into funny socks, and it seemed like exactly the kind of humanizing touch she wanted when playing the commander of the first voyage to Mars in Netflix’s new 10-episode space drama Away.
“I thought, ‘that’s humanity, right there,'” says Swank, hoisting her foot up onto the table, describing Massimino’s mix of brains and humor while showing off her celestial footwear.
, follows Swank’s highly accomplished astronaut Emma Green and her international crew as they sail farther and farther from their lives on Earth toward an unknown future on the red planet. Emma, the mother of a teenage daughter and the wife of NASA engineer, grapples with the straining tether between her family on Earth and her history-making career.
In January, in pre-pandemic Vancouver, Swank and her castmates are very much on Earth. They’re seated at a table in the backyard of the set for the Green family house, in front of a pergola that would likely meet Chip and Joanna Gaines’ approval. Through the windows, I can see the open-concept interior, a stainless steel fridge, and all the odds and ends families collect and put in their homes. The cast talk about the parts of human tendency that get taken or left behind on the way to Mars. Appropriately enough, they’re clad in spaceship-casual — the maroon monogrammed long-sleeve shirts and long-pants space version of athletic wear.
Away will, inevitably, be described as something of a workplace drama. Emma deals with co-workers who don’t always respect her authority, who gossip, who have their own views on familial relationships from space — not because any of them are good or bad people, but precisely because they are people. Stuffed into a spaceship for months on end, opinions have a way of bumping into each other. And in the first episode when a health crisis visits Emma’s immediate family, she has to choose between being a mother and being an astronaut.
“I think we’re in a [cultural shift],” Swank says, placing the show in the current time. “It’s equality, and we’re all there on set to do whatever our dream is no matter what gender, no matter what creed, no matter what race, and it’s an exciting time, and yet we still have these ingrained, old patterns of thinking.”
In a conference room at the Canadian studio, creator Andrew Hinderaker (wearing a black knit NASA cap) and showrunner Jessica Goldberg talk about the contrast of familiar Earthly problems and a future still in plastic wrap.
“Every episode is about that pull,” Goldberg says. “You do love your work and you love your family and you want both, and for men that’s never really been a question.”
Out on a wire
In the real world, NASA has its eyes on the 2030s for a manned-mission to Mars. And since roughly the turn of the century, an increasing percentage of Americans support sending humans to Mars — 53% as of 2019, according to Gallup.
Since Away takes place in what looks like the present day, the world it creates is both familiar and far off.
In one dark corner of the massive studio, I don’t immediately notice the hulking exterior of their crew’s spaceship, the Atlas. I get to wander through the command module, a dome-shaped area with a console of screens and five chairs with footholds tilted back. It’s a set, of course, but it drives home what an almost fantastical prospect it would be to strap a handful of humans to the top of a powerful rocket and send them hurtling toward a tiny speck in the sky.
In between takes, Swank and the crew hang out in the ship’s common area. Her dog, a chihuahua-mix aptly named Moon, sits on her lap, blissfully unaware of what’s going on.
Aside from some of the computer-generated wonders the show offers, like a moon base, there’s the practical consideration any space show or movie has to contend with: zero gravity.
Famously, Ron Howard shot scenes for Apollo 13 on NASA’s so-called “Vomit Comet,” the KC-135 plane that can actually achieve weightlessness as it climbs and dips.
Away opts for putting the cast on wires that will be painted out during post-production. It took two weeks prior to shooting of what the cast and creators called “astronaut bootcamp,” learning how their cores and glutes can help balance and steer their movements.
Vivian Wu, who plays Chinese astronaut Lu Wang, is pretty sure this is the best shape she’s ever been in, even if, early on, lower extremities had a tendency to go numb from time to time.
If zero gravity is effortless, wires are all effort.
“It’s the coolest thing, but it makes the acting really hard,” Wu says.
Hinderaker notes that one of the reasons the Atlas conveniently offers crew chambers with simulated gravity is to give the actors a break. “[It] allows our actors to play really emotional scenes not on wires floating around,” he says.
In a scene in the common space of the ship, I watch the cast do multiple takes requiring Swank to float over to Wang, hand her a device, exchange a meaningful glance and float away. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Sometimes the take-off is awkward, or she doesn’t quite hit the mark. It underlines that going to Mars, too, will be a balance of technical achievement and mastery of the physical and emotional conditions required of long-term space travel.
As the cast and crew shoot elsewhere, I, along with a gaggle of other reporters, get to wander through the set of the crew quarters. In tiny rooms with white gray walls, and an aesthetic not unlike an airplane, characters’ personal effects mix in with rolls of tape, mission manuals and a variety of tools. In Emma’s room, there are photos of her daughter and husband, and an astronaut figurine. In the room of botanist Kwesi (played by Ato Essandoh), there’s a Bible and a postcard of a tree with pink leaves.
The show is based on the 2014 Esquire article of the same name, about NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station. In the article, writer Chris Jones recounts Kelly’s experience during an earlier stint on the ISS, learning that his sister-in-law, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had been shot.
“Because of his distance, his sense of disbelief dug in for longer than it stayed in the others,” Jones wrote, “and maybe that’s what allowed adaptation to turn into resiliency, as though he were the last of them with any hope that a different reality might be true.”
The cast, none of whom is from the Vancouver area, relate their own experiences being so far from home, even if they’re still on the planet.
Ray Panthanki, who plays Indian astronaut Ram Arya, remembers tearing out a newspaper article on loneliness on the plane ride over. Essandoh missed his father’s 80th birthday in Ghana. Mark Ivanir, who plays Russian cosmonaut Misha Popov, spent hours in a sweat one day when his wife and two daughters wouldn’t answer their phones. Surely something must have been terribly wrong. (Mercifully, it was an issue of poor timing, and everyone was fine.)
Whether as actors or the characters they play, in Canada or thousands of miles into space, Essandoh landed on this, perhaps most basic, human tendency:
“Us humans, we are a social animal and we need each other,” he says, “and so when we don’t have our actual family, we make a family.”