'The Martian' Lands at NASA: Actors Meet Real-Life Counterparts in Houston

'The Martian' Actors Visit JSC
Actors Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis from the movie "The Martian" take a spin in NASA's Modular Robotic Vehicle, or MRV, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com/Robert Z. Pearlman)

HOUSTON — NASA rolled out the red carpet for two "Red Planet" movie actors on Tuesday (Sept. 15), sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the space agency's real journey to Mars with the stars from "The Martian."

Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis visited the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the actors met with their characters' real-life counterparts, took a spin in a prototype rover and spoke with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The day was capped by a preview screening of the Ridley Scott-directed film, which opens in theaters on Oct. 2. ['The Martian': An Epic Space Film in Pictures]

"I think you can go back and tell the other cast members that you got closer to Mars than any of them have done," said Ellen Ochoa, a shuttle-era astronaut and the director of the Johnson Space Center, referencing Stan and Davis' visit and a Martian meteorite brought out for display.

In the 20th Century Fox film, which is based on the book by author Andy Weir, Stan plays Chris Beck, an astronaut and flight surgeon on the fictional near-future NASA Ares III mission, which accidentally strands crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on Mars. Davis plays Mindy Park, a satellite communications engineer who works at Johnson Space Center in mission control.

"I certainly wish we could have gotten here before we did the movie, just because I am now really excited to do a sequel," quipped Stan.

The two actors were joined by Ochoa and astronauts Rex Walheim and Mike Hopkins, among others, as they toured through a training mockup of the space station, sat inside a development mockup of the Orion spacecraft designed to take astronauts to Mars, shook hands with Robonaut 2 and took a ride on the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV), a concept for a planetary rover similar to one created for the film.

"This isn't a movie set obviously, so this is very real," Stan said, reflecting on what he saw during the tour. "We were very lucky to have sets that were detailed enough to get close enough to what we are seeing here so that we could have more to play off of, because in order to capture even an inkling of the reality of what the guys go through day in and day out in the space station, we would need to sort of match a little bit of the detail that is in there."

From inside the real mission control, the cast members had the opportunity to chat with space station commander Scott Kelly and flight engineer Kjell Lindgren in Earth orbit. [Matt Damon – Making 'The Martian' Was Amazing (Exclusive Interview)]

"I will ask you guys a question we get asked a lot," Davis poised. "Having read 'The Martian,' how well do you think you could survive by yourself on Mars if under the same circumstances?"

"I think one of the things that really appeals to me [about the book] is how technically accurate, even though it is set in the future, that it seems to really try to be," Lindgren replied. "Frankly, I don't know I would have the know-how to MacGyver all the systems [needed] to scrub carbon dioxide, create oxygen and do all of the things that the main character Watney does — but I think it does really speak to the mission and the astronauts that we will send to Mars."

"On the space station, we have tremendous support from the ground," he explained. "When we have that mission to Mars, the astronauts that go there are going to have to have that depth of knowledge and expertise to be able to fix systems, have somebody who is a physician, maybe, that can help if anybody gets ill. There is going to have to be a lot of cross-training and technical know-how."

Kelly, who on Tuesday hit the halfway point for his nearly yearlong mission to collect medical data to support future missions to Mars, thanked "The Martian" co-stars for their call.

"Hope the movie does well and we look forward to seeing it up here, hopefully soon," he said.

"The Martian" cast members join their real-life counterparts for a roundtable discussion at the Johnson Space Center. Left to right: actors Mackenzie Davis and Sebastian Stan, astronaut and JSC director Ellen Ochoa, astronaut Mike Hopkins, and space station flight controller Pooja Jesrani. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com/Robert Z. Pearlman)

As a memento of their visit, Ochoa presented Stan and Davis with small flags that had flown to space aboard one of her space shuttle missions.

"It is really hard to get over that leap between something that is beautifully designed as a [movie set] replica and somebody you are talking to and you are like, 'Oh, you've actually seen Earth from outer space,'" commented Davis. "Nothing really compares to the real thing."

See more photos from "The Martian" cast members tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center at collectSPACE.com.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.