In the second episode of Netflix’s space drama ‘Away’, two astronauts head outside into space to make some emergency repairs.
Emma Green (Hilary Swank), the American commander of the international mission to Mars, and experienced Russian cosmonaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir) must work together to get the third solar array of their ship properly deployed.
As if a spacewalk on a moving ship wasn’t risky enough, Emma and Misha — who must stay tethered to each other to keep from floating off into space — are also at a crossroads: the latter believes the commander is unfit to lead the mission. It’s an early look at how closely the 10-episode series, now streaming, weaves its interpersonal and technical dramas together for added tension.
“We spent hours sitting in a room trying to figure out how to do that spacewalk and make it feel as epic and terrifying as it would be,” said Jessica Goldberg, executive producer and showrunner of “Away.”
Emma and Misha must make their way around the exterior of their spaceship toward a large array of solar panels whose function is critical to the success of their mission — and their survival. As expected from a high-stakes drama, the repairs are anything but simple and require Emma to take additional risks.
Based on an Esquire article by Chris Jones (who was a part of the show’s writers room), ‘Away’ is set in a future that is near enough that all of the science and technology feels within the realm of what is actually possible. There was plenty of research and consultants involved, including former Nasa astronaut Mike Massimino, to help maintain the series’ realism.
Emma and Misha’s spacewalk — like a number of other events experienced by the members of the Atlas crew — is inspired by actual events: the spacewalks at the International Space Station.
Pulling off the scene required the collaboration of multiple departments.
Production designer David Sandefur, who designed a detailed 3-D model of the Atlas even before building the actual set pieces, said that it all starts with the writing. He and the writer can then make adjustments as they figure out what things work and what don’t.
“We went back and forth until we hit this sort of perfect place where the set piece and the script and also the tenor of the scene matched up perfectly,” said Sandefur. “Some of the hardest things to shoot wind up being the most flawlessly executed, because there’s so much effort put into the complexity of it and making sure that it’s all sorted.”
Among the many specifics to consider for the spacewalk were the design and location of the solar array, the actual problems the astronauts would encounter along the way to get there, and how they would get back to safety.
“I built everything that was needed for [Emma and Misha] on their physical journey,” said Sandefur. “They travel 50 feet in one direction and 20 feet in another direction along the solar array — I basically built everything that they would make contact with and … everything that would capture their shadows.”
Everything was planned in order to create a sense of real jeopardy according to stunt coordinator Jeff Aro.
“There are some logistics that don’t necessarily translate from the page to the physical world,” said Aro. “We were tasked with making those transitions, bringing their words on the page to reality and determining what was sensible for our cast to do — and they did a large part of it.”
“Our goal was to use as much of Mark and Hillary as we could” in the scene, added Aro. “So we would use the stunt doubles to suss out the sequence, get the approval from the director, and then have our cast go through all of the elements to fill out the story beats.”
The key to the scene was making sure everything — from the design of the spaceship to the decisions the astronauts are making — don’t stray too far into the realm of science fiction. Staying tethered, for example, is something astronauts actually do for their safety during spacewalks.
“We’re trying to capture how a spacewalk feels,” said creator and executive producer Andrew Hinderaker. “Astronauts talk about it being so nerve-racking and exhausting and thrilling. And yet most spacewalks themselves, if you watch, are a little boring. A lot of just crawling along the side of the ship. So how do you capture how it feels and still keep a foot in conversation with what feels real?”
Sandefur said working on ‘Away’ has felt a bit like “fulfilling a childhood dream.”
“I’ve always had an interest in this,” said Sandefur. “I’ve always been interested in space travel since I was a kid and I wanted to be a fighter pilot as a young boy.”
For the Atlas itself, he took inspiration from the technology used by both Nasa and SpaceX (though not necessarily their actual designs). Even the crew’s quarters having artificial gravity is rooted in research and proposals that have been made for real-life space travel.
This helped balance realism and the demands of storytelling when it came to one unique facet of a TV show set in space. Almost every scene with zero gravity — such as those in the common room on the Atlas — involves stunt work with the actors being on wires.
“Because we don’t have zero gravity, we have to create that, which requires planning in every instance,” said Aro. “In that way, it was quite a challenge. Our storytelling typically is in explosions and fights … but in [‘Away’] it was of deeper emotional challenges and we were trying to make choices that reflected and complemented the story. That’s not typically what we’re solicited to do.”
It turns out the science on ‘Away’ might be one of the most realistic aspects of the show.
Hinderaker recalled an early conversation with a source from Nasa about the concept of the series and asked how soon a human mission to Mars would be possible with the adequate funds and international cooperation.
“He said, ‘Oh, we could go tomorrow,’” explained Hinderaker. “That was so powerful and that’s really part of why we chose to put the show in a very near future world that really felt like ours.”
“There are moments where it feels impossible that we’ll have the collective international will to do this,” said Hinderaker. But “the thing that feels [most] impossible, the show presupposes happened.”